Mark Steyn, Texas Sharpshooter

by John Holbo on November 19, 2012

Mark Steyn: “Just to be clear: I think Obama won the election, and his victory represents the will of the American people. Which is why the Democrats should have heeded Mubarak’s words and not over-stolen it.”

Glad we cleared that up!

By contrast, it actually is clear what fallacy Steyn is committing in his post. He’s a Texas Sharpshooter, if there ever was one.

If you don’t care to click the link above: Steyn thinks 37 Chicago precincts in which Romney got zero votes, total, is proof positive of fraud. (Someone had to vote for him by accident, if nothing else!)

Let’s think it through. I’m going to be a bit approximate about the numbers here. Chicago has just over 2000 precincts. Precincts average, to judge from the news article Steyn links, approx. 500 cast votes. That gets us 1,000,000 votes. That’s a bit low for a city of 3,000,000. (Must be that some precincts are bigger?) Anyhoo. I don’t now what percentage of the 2,000+ precincts are nearly 100% African-American, but let’s pencil that in as: a lot. (This is going to make the math squishy, admittedly.) So there are a lot of precincts in which you would expect to see, maybe, just five Romney votes out of 500. Or ten. Of course, chasing tails out both ends, there must be outlier precincts in which Romney got more votes than you would expect. And some in which he got zero. Thus, my proto-scientific conclusion: 37 0’s doesn’t seem like a lot, given that we know this is the tail end of a distribution of a lot of small numbers.

Gerrymandered districting is such common political practice that Steyn probably doesn’t see anything wrong with conceptual gerrymandering of districts (maybe, with a nod to Nelson Goodman, we should call it grueymandering): a large swathe of black Chicago – approx. 16,000 voters strong – in which Romney got squat votes. But, since there was not a single ex ante hypothesis of not a single X, anti-Obama, on any ballot from this singularly grue-ish Ward … well, you do the math.

I do like how, following up on the Benghazi ‘scandal’, we may now have another conspiracy that lacks a credible motive. What would be the point of depriving Romney of a few votes, in all-black Chicago precincts, thereby running up the numbers in Illinois, and making no conceivable difference to the election?

But I hereby predict that ‘zero votes for Romney from 16,000 Chicago voters’ is going to be with us for a while. I hope it makes it into textbooks on informal logic, too. It’s a good example.



Ken_L 11.19.12 at 6:18 am

Well in between spitting venom at the 47% of their fellow citizens who are useless takers and moochers – and isn’t THAT a terrific strategy for winning hearts and minds – they need some narrative to explain the remaining 5+% shortfall. A bit of voter fraud here, a Watergate-level conspiracy there, and it will be clear Romney didn’t lose at all. We wuz robbed! No need to change course, just do what we were doing before only more of it.

I hope that’s how it plays out. We saw how well it worked for Democrats post-2000.


GiT 11.19.12 at 6:36 am

Amazingly enough, there are also precincts (in Ohio, for one) were Obama received zero votes. Definitely fraud.


thomas 11.19.12 at 6:39 am

well, you do the math.

If a precinct has an expected Romney vote of 5, the probability of no Romney votes is about 0.7% (Poisson approximation), so you’d need a lot of precincts like that to make 37 zeroes likely.

I think 37 zeroes actually is a bit surprising, even given the Texas Sharpshooter problem, but I don’t think it’s evidence of fraud, because I don’t think it would be much more likely if there had been fraud, which is what you need for data to be evidence for one hypothesis over another.

That’s not quite the same as the Texas Sharpshooter fallacy.


John Holbo 11.19.12 at 6:53 am

“If a precinct has an expected Romney vote of 5.”

One thing that makes this difficult is that in a lot of precincts – the most pro-Obama ones – Romney might be expected to do even worse than 1%. Urban black district in Obama’s hometown. But it’s a bit hard to be sure about that.


Charles S 11.19.12 at 7:19 am


What makes it very much the Texas Sharpshooter fallacy is that nothing would change in the argument if it had been 13 precincts in Cleveland or 12 precincts in Detroit or 38 precincts in D.C., and no argument would have been made if the largest cluster hadn’t seemed arbitrarily large enough. This is purely taking the largest cluster of random events and claiming it means something that all these things are where they are, which is exactly the Texas Sharpshooter fallacy.


dalriata 11.19.12 at 7:34 am

Has anyone done the numbers and found out how many districts or wards across rural America had no Obama votes? I’m sure there must be some, even if their overall effect on the election was quite small.


Mao Cheng Ji 11.19.12 at 7:35 am

But surely most states had more than 2 presidential candidates on the ballot? Since the level of popularity of Mitt Romney in inner Chicago has to be similar to that of Gary Johnson in an Amish community, it should be easy enough to compare the patterns.


MountainMan 11.19.12 at 7:35 am

Oh, come on. If you’re going make a serious post attempting to rebut the claims of fraud, at least put some effort into it. You’re no better than National Review — “Here’s a couple numbers, and if you… well, um… Anyways, it’s basic math! *hand waving* See? It doesn’t seem unreasonable!”

Thomas does a much better job making a statistical case *for* fraud in a single sentence. Here’s some questions you should research:
(1) How did these precincts vote historically?
(2) Were there many other 100% Romney or Obama precincts nationwide of similar size?
(3) What was the turnout in these precincts (i.e., maybe no one would have voted had it not been for Obama’s ground game, which just ran up the score)?
(4) Does this count early voters? If not, maybe the Romney voters didn’t want to head to the polls on election day due to voter intimidation, or perhaps they had to work (alternatively, perhaps they are virulently racists and didn’t want to leave their homes to interact with people of color)?


John Holbo 11.19.12 at 8:19 am

“Oh, come on. If you’re going make a serious post attempting to rebut the claims of fraud, at least put some effort into it.”

I think you are misunderstanding what it takes to demonstrate that Steyn is committing the Sharpshooter fallacy, MountainMan. I probably should have added to the post that it is quite possible that there was fraud at some of these precincts. I obviously can’t have proved there wasn’t fraud can I? Steyn may be right that there is fraud. People have reasoned wrongly yet believed rightly before! But he has no good reason to suppose there is fraud, pretty clearly.


Abiye Teklemariam 11.19.12 at 8:36 am

MountainMan: A lot of CT readers know a poseur when they see one.


John Holbo 11.19.12 at 9:42 am

Thomas is right that it was confusing of me to imagine Romney averaging 2% of the vote (10 votes out of 500) and coming up dry in 37 Precincts. Probably we need to imagine something a bit under 1%. But, as I say above, that seems plausible enough – striking, yes.

Charles also makes the excellent point that there is really no reason to stop with Chicago. Toss in anywhere there was a zero-Romney precinct – Cleveland or Detroit or wherever. Now we have 20, 30, 40, 50 thousand voters and no Romney votes in this ‘district’! It starts to sound even more certain that there must have been fraud. A nice illustration of the fallacy.


GiT 11.19.12 at 10:23 am


GiT 11.19.12 at 10:26 am

I flubbed the HTML tag, aparently. I’ll resign myself to a straight link:

In lieu of linking straight to the .pdf, which seems unseemly, here’s a link to the page on which the map is indexed. Bottom map: 2008 primary voting.


Coulter 11.19.12 at 1:39 pm

Elections are messy, regardless of active fraud or not. In philadelphia, the Inquirer tried to find the registered republicans in the zero romney wards (there were a dozen plus or so) and find out how they voted. A couple didn’t know they were republicans and the rest couldn’t be found, as in the address didn’t exist, the person was not at the address or never was, etc.

I think the shame in the ID debate is the lack of debate that in most states 20-30% of the registered voters have moved or are otherwise ineligble to vote. What that means, is any election campaign has a 20-30% cushion in certain districts to get out the vote from those who aren’t there anymore. Widespread fraud? Probably not. Never? Definitely not.

When I looked at the voter data from this election, I was more suprised by the urban districts that achieved 95-99% voter turnout, rather than 100% of the votes going to Obama. I thin the former is a sign that someone was paid on the ground game to get every vote out, and they did, without id. I the inquirer had tried to find everyone who voted in the districts I feel confident they wouldn’t have found 20-30% of them …


Don A in Pennsyltucky 11.19.12 at 1:40 pm

I have seen the identical argument made about both Cleveland and Philadelphia — in some precincts Romney got zero votes so there must have been fraud going on. I don’t know about Cleveland, but both Chicago and Philadelphia have a lot of straight party voters who only have to be told to do one thing — and the sample ballots make that easy to do.


Andy W 11.19.12 at 1:42 pm

Statement of the bleeding obvious, perhaps, but no half-intelligent electoral fraudster would fake a result of zero votes. You’d leave one or two just to muddy the waters. Put another way, where are the voters protesting (anonymously, even) that they voted for Romney in one of these precincts?


Glen Tomkins 11.19.12 at 1:44 pm

Actually, the expected Romney vote % in an inner city black precinct is undoubtedly much lower than the % of the overall black vote that Romney carried. There are plenty of wealthy blacks in the US, even more UMC blacks, and then plenty of blacks who attend very conservative, if not evangelical, churches. These groups are where Romney got almost all of his black vote, and these groups are not present in many, many precincts in our inner cities.

Blacks for Romney are rare. Blacks for Romney in these precincts would be rare squared.


Fu Ko 11.19.12 at 1:51 pm

If you’re going to commit election fraud, tossing out 5 R votes in a 99% D precinct seems like a bad strategy.


RSA 11.19.12 at 2:22 pm

@6: Has anyone done the numbers and found out how many districts or wards across rural America had no Obama votes?

I took a look around but found nothing like that, unfortunately. So I browsed through a few results in one of the reddest states, Wyoming, and found that even there Obama managed a few votes (e.g. 7 in Orpha and 11 in Dry Creek), as can be seen on this page. Ironically, these two precincts show something that raises the blood pressure of people like Steyn–voter turnout greater than 100%.

It’s also possible to see the precinct-level numbers for Cuyahoga County (big text link here). The distributions for Obama and Romney votes look strikingly different, if I remember correctly, but of course there are reasonable explanations for that.


Glen Tomkins 11.19.12 at 2:53 pm


I wouldn’t expect the same monolithic R vote in even the reddest precincts as the monolithic D vote you can find in many blue precincts. Both the D and the R coalitions are vareigated, if not really broad, enough to offer something to entice at least some voters just about anywhere in the country to be pro-R or pro-D. To take the black vote as an example, the Rs keep telling themsleves that any day now, their party’s rock-ribbed religiosity is bound to start pealing off black church-goers in droves.

They might have a point, that might work, except that you have to look also at the dark side of things, at the anti impulses. You need an anti-R, or an anti-D, motivation to get the vote for that party down to zero anywhere. The Ds aren’t anti-farm, or anti-rural. They don’t try to win votes elsewhere by making people who live in the country the object of vilification and paranoid fantasies such as the one Steyn is peddling about blacks.

Obviously, if it were just Steyn and just other fringe elements, many blacks would follow their attraction to one or more element of what the Rs offer. But their whole electoral strategy is based on vilifying blacks, has been since 1968. That’s why there are whole precincts of black voters where the Rs can’t find a single vote.


Daryl McCullough 11.19.12 at 3:58 pm

Here’s my rough calculation: If 37 precincts out of 1000 had zero Romney votes, that would be expected if Obama received 99.3% of the votes in those precincts.


Hob 11.19.12 at 4:20 pm

@16, @18: But see, you’ve missed Steyn’s brilliant point. Yes, for the Democrats to steal votes in this way would make no real difference and would be a bizarre, elaborate waste of time. But, for a true believer, that’s no reason to doubt that they stole the votes. For Steyn it just makes them even more reprehensible, because clearly they “over-stole.” They couldn’t resist tipping their hand with this nonsensical behavior because they’re just that evil.


Glen Tomkins 11.19.12 at 6:24 pm


I am uneasy about leaving it where this comment seems to, that Steyn is some prize imbecile. Imbecile or not, there is a rational end served by convincing people, even if the only people who will believe this are the faithful, that the Ds are indeed just that evil. If that Chicago political machine will steal a few votes even when it won’t affect the outcome, just imagine what the Ds are capable of when the outcome actually depends on how much they steal!

And that’s exactly the sort of imaginative capacity it looks like they are going to be appealing to next cycle. We haven’t seen the last or worst of exaggerated and misplaced concerns over voter fraud. Voter ID laws were a bust for them this cycle, but I always suspected that they just threw voter ID out there early as a vehicle for getting legal limits defined before they make their big legislative push at voter suppression. Their Federalist Society junta in SCOTUS needs to clarify just how much voter suppression their red states will be allowed to get away with under the guise of serving the public policy interest of the states in preventing voter fraud. Get that clarified, see just how much their justices are willing to bend the XVth Amendment, and then they can craft their legislation accordingly.

In that context, any evidence of voting fraud is welcome. Steyn may be peddling pretty thin stuff here, but it’s way more solid than anything else they’ve yet put on the market.


kharris 11.19.12 at 6:24 pm

Gerrymandering, properly done, would put a substantial minority of Republican votes in every heavily Democratic precinct, to dilute Republican votes. Where Republican majorities are too large to dilute, you’d pile even more Republicans in, to reduce their numbers in other districts. Good gerrymandering would never lead to a 100% vote in favor of the guy you support. It might lead to a few 100% votes for the other guy, when a vote above 50% is otherwise inevitable.


Zamfir 11.19.12 at 6:28 pm

There are districts in Chechnya that make sure that never less than 100% o f the votes go to Putin. More like 105% or so. As far as I can tell, the purpose is to show that the local ruler is very loyal.


GiT 11.19.12 at 6:30 pm

On precincts with no Obama votes:

Admittedly, they are much smaller than Chicago’s. But nonetheless…


Glen Tomkins 11.19.12 at 6:41 pm


About those Utah precincts, there actually were some Obama votes, but they were all written on golden tablets that have since disappeared.


Glen Tomkins 11.19.12 at 6:47 pm


The Ds labor under the inherent disadvantage that their voters are more concentrated than R voters, thus making at least some 100% districts almost unavoidable. You’re absolutely right that an effective gerrymander would never allow districts anywhere near 100% for the gerrymanderer’s party, but the Ds have to work with what they’ve got, and couldn’t gerrymander as effectively as the Rs even if they were as ruthless about it.


mollymooly 11.19.12 at 7:09 pm

@24, 28: the point about gerrymandering only applies with regard to an electoral district which actually elects somebody [whether to an office or an electoral college]; gerrymandering is irrelevant when dividing up the electoral district into multiple precincts, which is purely an administrative convenience for holding the election.

Crafty precinct boundaries may facilitate outright fraud by the local ward boss or whoever, but that’s not the same as gerrymandering.


Colin Danby 11.19.12 at 9:07 pm

This bit, from the NBC piece GiT references above, also seems relevant:

“And we did find precincts where Romney won unanimously. We weren’t able to examine the entire state, because most rural county clerks are, understandably, less well-staffed and well-organized than the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners.”

How widely are precinct-level results available, even with a lag? Any poli-sci quant people out there?


djr 11.19.12 at 10:40 pm

mollymooly @ 29,
The gerrymander could be at a different level, e.g. if the precints are also electoral districts for local elections.


ezra abrams 11.19.12 at 10:56 pm

In their article on the Obama war room, staffed by academic psychologists and other scientitsts, the N Y Times noted that when someone says “obama is a muslim” you don’t say no he isn’t – all that happens is the original person remembers obama/muslim
Instead of trying to remove the image, you try to supplant it with a different affirmative image: Obama is a Christian

Similarly, arguing with these people “Fraud did not Occur” will merely leave them with the memory of Fraud.

And, if MA state politics is any guide, there might well have b een fraud; certainly, people here would not be surprised to hear that (say) H Barbour got re elected with fraud; why should we be surprised, that out of the 1,000s of precints, there wasn’t some fraud.
Indeed, I will go further: it would be very strange if there were no fraud in the election; that would suggest mis reporting of hte results.
I’m not sure what the proper affirmative counter response is – Maybe something like “Obama won the election fairly” or “Obama won the election”


Glen Tomkins 11.19.12 at 10:57 pm


Availability of results varies by state.

Here in VA, the only state I’m familiar with, they put up the unoffical results on the internet as soon as they are called in to the county election boards from the polling places. One of the most important things a partisan observer does at closing of the polling place is to make sure the election judge phones in an accurate tally, because that result gets on the internet within minutes, and we don’t want the election wrongly called for the other guy by the media. Polls close at 7PM, you start seeing results by 730, and by 830 over 90% of precincts are available online. If a precinct doesn’t have results online by 930, that means that precinct had serious mechanical problems with the voting machines. The canvass (the election board’s double-check of the paperwork generated by the polling places) happens over the next 3-4 days, and ends with the official results handed over to the district court by Friday noon.

On the other hand, we have states like AZ and OR, that apparently don’t have to count everything and report official results for weeks. I’m not sure where IL is on that spectrum, and not clear how many states put up by-precinct results on the internet on what schedule.


Peter T 11.19.12 at 11:16 pm

@14: Elections are messy, regardless of active fraud or not.

No they are not. Most other advanced countries manage to run elections with no significant fraud, no waiting hours in line, comprehensive up to date electoral rolls, easy ID requirements and so on. It’s not rocket science.


faustusnotes 11.20.12 at 12:47 am

Steyn’s effort on Tribal America is funny and noxious by turns. At the beginning he states:

To an immigrant such as myself (not the undocumented kind, but documented up to the hilt, alas)

which is right up there with Romney’s “if only I was a Mexican” gaffe. Really, Steyn, do you think you’d be a staff writer at NRO if you were an illegal immigrant? If being an undocumented immigrant is better, why did you come to the USA legally? Don’t rational market actors like you respond to incentives? Or did you actually look at your options and decide that being an undocumented immigrant is not as good as you pretend in your posts?

He then drops this pearler in the middle:

The short history of the Western Hemisphere is as follows: North America was colonized by Anglo-Celts, Central and South America by “Hispanics.” Up north, two centuries of constitutional evolution and economic growth; down south, coups, corruption, generalissimos, and presidents-for-life.

Really? American history is only two centuries long? And it has consisted only of constitutional evolution? No words that start with “s” and rhyme with “bravery”? And all those coups down south had nothing to do with the folks up North?

If ever there was an example of being ashamed of the history of your own country, that’s it right there. I’ve got a soft spot for Steyn since he (unselfconsciously) quoted Flashman in favour of the war in Afghanistan, but I do have to say: he’s a bit of a cock, isn’t he?


Glen Tomkins 11.20.12 at 1:21 am


I disagree only to the point that yes, it does take rocket science — to keep people from voting. We’re experts at it in the US, and the proof is in the results, your list of bad things, plus the most important result, the purpose of the whole design — low turnout.

Our voting was designed to be difficult, and to produce low turnout, to allow state-level political machines to control the outcome as much as possible within the context of a democracy. Then we had a period that people think of as an era of bipartisanship and good government, when the machines went away, but was actually a merely temporary anomaly caused by the Rs imploding after 1932. We didn’t bother to reform at that point, we didn’t federalize and regularize and simplify elections when it was possible, during this period when Ds dominated and Rs only won office by being D-lite/RINOs, because we thought the good government battle was won because the machines had withered away.

Now it’s too late. The era of fake bipartisanship, whch was really one party rule, is over. We’re probably not going to get old-style political machines back, but we are going to see at least attempts at ideologically based juntas at the state level, whereby once the Rs get control of the state lege and governor’s mansion, they try to to get even better control over election results than the legacy rules, which merely create an undifferentiated difficulty to voting, allow. Even an undifferentiated difficulty hlpe shte Rs, because more of their voters are higher SES, more able to overcome difficulties, and more attuned to the impoortance of voting. They will try to heighten the difficulties, and create differentials, whereby it’s harder to vote for disfavored groups of voters.

I believe that this will happen because the Rs have no choice but make it happen, or face destruction. For one thing, there’s the demographic tide, but then there’s the prospect that the Ds, energized by their attempts at voter suppression, will federalize and simplify voting, should they ever get control at the federal level. The Rs can’t let the Ds do that, and they can’t let the demographic tide come in.


Doctor Memory 11.20.12 at 2:59 am

maybe the Romney voters didn’t want to head to the polls on election day due to voter intimidation, or perhaps they had to work (alternatively, perhaps they are virulently racists and didn’t want to leave their homes to interact with people of color)?

Now there’s an argument offered in good faith if ever I saw one.


Coulter 11.20.12 at 3:11 am

Peter –

The difference is the US has an entrenched political system that believes they benefit from long lines, lack of ID (easy or not), up to date electorcal rolls, etc. Just because it works elsewhere doesn’t mean it will be well executed here …


nick s 11.20.12 at 4:24 pm

Or did you actually look at your options and decide that being an undocumented immigrant is not as good as you pretend in your posts?

I suspect that Sh*t Steyn knows his readers well, and that they elide “immigrant” to “illegal” without a second thought.

On the other side-note, which actually heads back to the main thread: the US does not, for the most part, have a tradition of free and fair elections, and it’s a fair argument that its electoral traditions are based upon exclusion and suppression. The voting machine and the political machine emerged together in northern cities to underpin the white-ethnic Democratic base of the early 20th century, while the south took a different approach with its poll taxes and literacy tests.

There was a piece in the Graun suggesting that US elections have precisely nothing to teach the UK because their political system retains a superstructure that Britain began shrugging off in the 1830s (the Blackadder the Third election episode comes to mind); Steyn certainly couldn’t write that piece, projection and all, about his native Canada.


Gene O'Grady 11.20.12 at 5:54 pm

I have long standing family ties with Chicago. So that during the Goldwater convention in San Francisco our house was full of Illinois Rockefeller delegates and their families. Talked to some of the kids my age who were friendly with two old black guys (I seem to recall that one of them was named General Washington) who had been Republican delegates to national conventions for about forty years (yes, tokens, but they seem to have had some self respect) and they were just furious at the racist rudeness directed at these two older men by the young conservative hot shots. So maybe it’s plausible that there weren’t any Republican voters in the black parts of Chicago? I remember where Mitt Romney was at (as opposed to his father) ca. 1964.


Salient 11.21.12 at 5:51 am

Already I’m hearing the Thanksgiving Talking Point that Obama stole 80 EV’s worth of states by voter fraud. Steyn’s bit is just noise for the signal mill.


RonK, Seattle 11.22.12 at 12:18 am

Carrying out the math suggested by thomas @3, you’d need 37/.007 such precincts, of 500 voters each … which would suggest that nearly 194% of Chicago’s 1,364,371 total registered voters are African-Americans living in perfectly segregated precincts.


BrianK 11.24.12 at 5:54 pm

If I were out to steal an election, I don’t think deleting actual votes of my opponent all the way down to zero in a precinct would be the way to go. All the opponent needs to do is find three, four, five — in any event, a mere handful — of voters in that precinct who credibly claim they did vote for him, and there’s pretty serious evidence of fraud, no? (I couldn’t argue that all three of them must have voted for my guy by mistake without effectively conceding Steyn’s argument that, of 500 like minded voters for my guy, at least one is likely to have made a mistake in the opposite direction.) But, as long as no one has come up with those handful of voters in any of the 100% Romney or 100% Obama districts, I don’t worry much about this issue (there are other kinds of fraud that would be more difficult to detect and that I would worry about more).


Steve Nordquist 11.24.12 at 10:27 pm

5 Romney people per district agree they should be chained to their desks through Dec. 30 and never use company property to mark personal ballots.
Write-ins for Romney elided when absolute R not found in voting device UTF tables.
Supporters of GOP dementia policy expect to be counted post facto, flowers twice a week, and remember signing the form to be composted in hemp to avoid cremation.

Steyn (in the textbook Sharpshooter citation) needs a followup claim to nail the deed (i.e. 37 of his districts lined up ‘canny’ rather than unnatural.) NP.

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