Mainstream media outlets around the world have declared Barack Obama the victor in yesterday’s US presidential elections, but particle physicists at CERN say that the race is still too close to call.
With every state except Florida reporting, the New York Times announced that Obama had won the popular vote and easily gained the electoral college points needed to win re-election. The Princeton Election Consortium put the probability of Obama’s victory at 99.2%.
But that confidence level is still several standard deviations away from the point at which particle physicists would be willing to declare the next president. According to the norms of the field, pollsters would have to be 99.99995% confident that Obama had won before physicists would be willing to call the race.
“All we can say right now is there is some evidence that Barack Obama will return to the White House in January,” says Marcus Georgio, head of the SISYPHUS collaboration at CERN. “The data simply doesn’t support anything beyond that.”
Privately, many physicists at the lab blamed America’s fractured voting system for their inability to announce a definitive result. Each of the fifty states sets its own voting rules and each uses a different system of paper ballots, electronic voting platforms, or punch cards. “Integrating this kind of data is frankly a nightmare,” says one physicist who asked not to be named for fear of appearing critical of the democratic process. “There are a variety of poorly documented systems and virtually no metadata.” The task is made more difficult by the fact that data are collected by county rather than polling station or individual houses. “The binning is just awful,” he complains.
But Georgio says that blaming the electoral apparatus is overly simplistic. Even if all 300 million residents of the United States voted, and all their votes were known to near perfect accuracy, “it’s still not clear whether the result would be statistically robust enough to declare an Obama victory,” he says.
Physicists say that they will continue to monitor the election closely. In the meantime, based on integrated data from all previous elections combined, they are ready to declare Benjamin Harrison the 23rd president of the United States.