Beat the Press

Dean Baker's commentary on economic reporting


American Idol Special: Was the Vote Kosher?

First, Beat the Press extends its congratulations to Taylor Hicks, the new American Idol. Now, for the serious question, was the vote fair?

The issue here has to do with the voting mechanism. As we know the vote took place through phone-in voting. (People could also text message in their favorites). The problem is that the enthusiastic response by Idol fans often left the phone lines busy. For example, the Washington Post Idol wrap-up reported that a special on-line speed dialing service was able to get through with less than one-quarter of its calls. If most calls don’t get through, then the votes recorded for each contestant will end up being roughly the same, regardless of how many people intended to vote for them.

This can be seen with a simple example. Suppose the system accepts 10 calls a minute for each contestant (they had separate phone numbers). Now suppose that Katharine McPhee had 1000 calls and Taylor Hicks had 2000 calls. Since the system will only accept 10 calls a minute, both contestants will be recorded as having 600 votes (60 minutes times 10 calls a minute), even though Taylor had twice as many people call in to vote for him.

Now, as a practical matter, the vote count will never end up exactly the same. Some people may be a bit quicker with their calls, perhaps the percentage of text messagers in the vote will affect the recorded outcome, but the point is that the vote count will be largely determined by the mechanics of the system, rather than the numbers who vote for each contestant.

This would explain the incredibly close three way race between Taylor, Katherine, and Elliot, a week ago. The system let in almost exactly the same number of calls from all three. It would also explain the cliffhanger two years ago when Rueben Studdard edged out Clay Aiken. Any time when the system gets flooded, the vote counts will tend to converge.

Folks, this isn’t about hanging chads determining which of America’s political dynasties will place their scion in the White House. This is the American Idol. The people must have confidence in the system.


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