LAW AND DATA:
THE BUTTERFLY BALLOT EPISODE
On the television series Law and Order the police catch criminals and hand them over to lawyers to get convictions. The program's dramatic tension comes in part from the police operating under the scrutiny of a rigid and unforgiving legal system. The suspense increases as the lawyers try to do their job even though there is often a gap between justice and what the law requires.
In “Law and Data, ” data analysts track down the facts and prove their theories, but they often have trouble explaining them simply and clearly. Lawyers find it hard to obtain, or even define, justice. And the law sometimes goes in odd directions, missing the biggest facts and emphasizing seemingly trivial ones. Justice is not always done.
Our “Law and Data” episode involves political scientists from Cornell, Harvard, Northwestern, and the University of California, Berkeley, who came together through a series of accidents to become expert witnesses for the “butterfly ballot” cases in Palm Beach County, Florida. In the first few days after the 2000 election, our work was motivated solely by intellectual curiosity, the importance of the issue, and the availability of data on the Internet that made quick analysis possible. Our initial analysis of the surprisingly high Buchanan vote in Palm Beach County was completed and posted to the Web by the Saturday after the election, and this led to a telephone call and an e-mail message from a lawyer in Florida who asked us to become involved in the butterfly ballot cases. Throughout the process, our admiration grew for the lawyers' and judges' efforts to do their best, but our doubts have increased over whether the legal process can effectively digest statistical information and make the best use of it. We saw, up close, a very significant problem—the failure of our voting system to convert people's