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Staring Into The Navel Of Ballots

Now that the presidential election in Florida has plunged everyone into a crash course on the different kinds of holes made in ballots, it turns out that philosophy may offer some consolation. Long before terms like indented, pregnant and swinging-door chads entered our conversation, two metaphysicians, Roberto Casati and Achille Varzi — proving the adage that nothing is too small for academic study — published their book, ”Holes and Other Superficialities” (M.I.T. Press, 1994).

”The fate of the planet hinges on the humblest of all objects studied by metaphysicians, the hole,” they wrote in a joint statement in response to the election.

”At the moment, the question of who wins the presidential election comes down to what criteria you use to identify a hole,” said Mr. Varzi, an associate professor of philosophy at Columbia University, who on greeting a guest at his apartment the other day offered a plate filled, appropriately enough, with doughnuts and the little balls of doughnut known as holes.

”If a ballot has a big hole and a smaller hole does it have one or two holes or one and a half? Is a hole a physical space or is it the representation of the intention of the voter? Perhaps if people had thought more about the metaphysics of holes, we wouldn’t have this problem.”

As metaphysicians — philosophers who study the nature of being — Mr. Varzi and Mr. Casati, have made a specialty out of considering the ontological status of entities that have generally received little attention — shadows, clouds, vagueness and holes. Still, neither man had anticipated today’s ballot dilemma in their contemplation of holes. And yet, they say, the ballot counting in Florida raises a host of important questions about holes, individual will, rational choice and other philosophical matters.

First, why are holes used for ballots? asked Mr. Casati, a researcher at the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris, in a telephone interview. One of the curious characteristics of holes, he said, is that, although they are an absence, not a substance, they are irrevocable. ”Once a hole has been made, it cannot be unmade,” he said. ”A hole is something that changes the world. You can’t correct it. Holes are used to make something definitive: like punching a ticket on a train.”

But the problem gets trickier, Mr. Casati explained, the deeper into it you get. If someone makes a hole by one candidate’s name, realizes they have made a mistake and then widens the hole to reach a second candidate’s name, is it one hole or two? Is a hole simply a perforation that lets in light or must a chad be fully punched through? Those are the problems that have bedeviled the vote counters in Florida.

”The machines are blind to human intention, but a manual recount is open to subjective will,” Mr. Casati said. The problem reaches the point of total paradox when the gap in votes is as tiny as it is in this case. Mr. Verza explained, ”Right now, the margin of error in the recount is probably greater than the difference between the candidates.” If one in every 1,000 votes is miscounted in a state of five million voters, each recount will be off by about 5,000 votes, whereas the gap has lately been about 300.

This would seem to support the view of George W. Bush and his supporters that a manual hand count is inherently arbitrary and unfair. ”Not necessarily,” Mr. Casati said. ”You have the same problem with mechanical vote counting. It also internalizes a theory of what a hole is. We know that that theory is inadequate and has clearly failed to count many votes.”

Both methods incorporate theories of what a hole is. That two different mechanical counts produced a difference of about 1,400 votes reveals a significant margin of error in an election that hangs on a mere 300. The only way to divine the true intention of voters, Mr. Varzi and Mr. Casati said, would be to interview individual voters or call for a recount.

But this road, they acknowledged, leads to another philosophical dead end. As the Greek pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus said: the river you step into today is not the same river you stepped into yesterday. The events of the last 10 days would inevitably alter any possible second vote.

Thus, the Florida election officials and the rest of the world may have to accept that in such a close election we are in a weird, metaphysical limbo, a zone of fundamental indeterminacy, where we will never know for sure who actually won and where every count produces a different result.

The difficulty of counting individual holes, the authors contend, may encourage political thinkers to consider a philosophical dilemma known as the voter’s paradox. According to the paradox, Mr. Casati said, ”everyone knows that their individual vote will almost certainly not decide the election. Their vote doesn’t count. And yet if everyone acted on that, we wouldn’t have an election.”

A variation on this theme, Mr. Varzi explained, is called a sorites paradox, from the Greek word for bunch or pile. ”If there is a bunch of chocolates in a bowl, a child takes one thinking, ‘No one will notice that it’s gone.’ When he wants another, the same thing will be true, there will be no visible difference in the pile, but if he keeps taking the chocolates, eventually it becomes obvious. It’s like, how many hairs do you have on your head to be considered bald.”

Mr. Casati saidthat the elections in Florida and New Mexico would seem to undermine the paradox, since those have come down to so few votes. But the loss, invalidation and miscounting of ballots confirms the paradox. ”The American electoral system is based on the rights of the individual and the notion that every vote counts, but in this election individual will is invisible,” he said.

So what kind of a voting system do the philosophers favor? One with or without holes? ”Punching a hole is gratifying,” Mr. Varzi said, ”but I think in the near future we will have to move to a computerized system, which, like an automatic bank teller, will ask you to confirm your choices, in order to minimize error.”

Mr. Casati is not so sure. ”Voting is a collective ritual,” he said. ”Voting is an irrational act, since the individual vote does not count. But people vote because they like to participate in a collective ritual. They like to gather in a physical space with other people, they like to make a physical gesture, an action, making a cross, pulling a switch, making a hole in the ballot. With computers, at the moment, we don’t have that sensation.” So an ideal system would minimize error while retaining the collective ritual.

– November 18, 2000

Published at The New York Times

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