Curse of the Butterfly

Butterflies are already under suspicion for many catastrophes, as in: “Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?” This so-called Butterfly effect, in which the final outcome is very sensitive to the exact initial conditions, is one of the basic finding of chaos theory. We may never know which butterfly to blame for Hurricane Matthew, but the storm sent me on an unexpected trip from South Florida to Tallahassee.

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While visiting the museum inside Florida’s old capitol, I came upon the exhibit for the 2000 presidential election, which I remember distinctly, since it was the first I was old enough to vote in. Of course, the exhibit put the most pro-Florida spin possible on the debacle that demonstrated “the resilience of our democracy,” including the fact that the State Supreme Court ordered a full recount, only to be overruled by the US Supreme Court. The size of the victory either way was so razor-thin that it was certainly swamped by the margin of error. Mathematician John Allen Paulos suggested that flipping a coin was the most fair method to resolve the election, rather than trying to measure “bacteria with a yardstick.” Yet, the need to have a definitive answer caused us to scrutinize “hanging chads.” Multiple factors converged to swing the election. Primarily, a kind of butterfly was blamed, the “butterfly ballot.”

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The museum wisely placed it behind protective glass, lest it be attacked by vengeful Gore supporters.

Image result for butterfly ballot old capitol

The irony was that the whole purpose of the unconventional ballot was to help older voters by increasing the size of the font. Combined with the many ballot issues that year, the decision was made to put candidate names on both sides. However, this confused some voters who wanted to vote for Gore, but mistakenly punched the second hole from the top, registering a vote for Pat Buchanan. While we can’t know for sure, there is strong evidence that this factor alone cost Gore thousands of votes, certainly many, many more than 537, the ultimate official margin of victory (2,912,790 to 2,912,253). During the weeks of uncertainty, many Bush voters wondered how anyone could miss the obvious, large arrows that clearly mark the proper hole. The curse of knowledge was at work. Once you know the right answer, it is hard to put yourself back in the mindset of not knowing and imagine  bumbling it. However, it is very plausible that someone seeing the ballot for the first time and told to adhere to the five minute time limit just saw the left page and punched accordingly.