Type Errors and Election Integrity

(This is an analogy that came to me while I was sleep-deprived, so it may not be very good.)

In testing any intervention, you have two goals: make sure that if an intervention (for instance, a medication) has no effect (for instance, on recovery from a disease) then the experiment will show it has no effect. On the other hand, If the intervention does have an effect, then you want the experiment to show that effect.

If you fail at your first goal and mistakenly reject the null hypothesis (conclude there is an effect when there isn’t one) then you have made a type I error, or a false positive. If you fail at your second goal and fail to notice an effect when there is one, you have made a type II error, or a false negative.

These goals are at odds. Statistically speaking, if your test is too strict, if your bar is too high, then you might not notice an effect that is really there (and thereby give up the chance to help people with your intervention). But if your test is too loose, you will start seeing effects everywhere that are just the result of random chance (and thereby waste a lot of time/money/effort on useless interventions).

A lot of areas of policy are similar. There are tradeoffs, and you want to choose the strategy or policy that walks the line between two failure modes that mirror each other. (Or maybe you want to choose the meta-policy or meta-strategy that results in the fewest number of errors overall, just as you design your statistical methods to avoid coming to false conclusions of either type.) A lot of times, there is no perfect answer, and you just have to swallow the least-bad tradeoffs.

Many people are concerned about election integrity, and it comes up frequently in New Hampshire politics. It is relatively easy to vote here. We have same day voter registration. If you don’t have a photo ID, you can sign an affidavit promising that you are who you say you are. This leads some people to worry about false positives. They worry that there are people voting who should not be, and that this threatens our election integrity.

A policy change that would make it more difficult to vote in New Hampshire would decrease our chance of false positives and improve our election integrity in one respect, but it would simultaneously increase our chance of false negatives and harm our election integrity, just in the opposite direction.

There are some bills we’re facing in this legislative session which increase our risk of false negatives – that is, they prevent people who should have the right to vote in New Hampshire from doing so. For example, HB1543, which has not yet been scheduled for a hearing in the Election Law Committee, would restrict most college students from voting.

Why do I think college students should be able to vote here? A majority of their year is spent in New Hampshire, even if their parents live in another state, which means that for most of the year, they have to obey all the laws of New Hampshire, face New Hampshire courts if they commit a crime, and pay New Hampshire’s taxes, such as our meals and rooms tax. They are more affected by New Hampshire’s political decisions than the decisions of any other state. I could list some other reasons, but this is the biggest and simplest reason, for me.

When it comes to deciding between policy tradeoffs, our government has already pre-committed, via the State and Federal Constitution, to a preference for false positives when the question regards retaining a legal right. That is, given the option, we would rather citizens retain their rights when they ought not to instead of losing their rights when they shouldn’t. The most obvious example is the principle of “innocent until proven guilty.”

From my experience, most of the vocal supporters of tightening up New Hampshire’s election laws and reducing false positives at the voting booth would balk at the prospect of tightening up New Hampshire’s gun control laws and reducing false positives at the gun shows. “We want to make sure nobody votes who shouldn’t be able to vote” sounds good to them, but “We want to make sure nobody has a gun who shouldn’t be able to have a gun” sounds threatening. The problem is, both voting and gun ownership are legal rights guaranteed by our Constitutions. The presumption is that everybody has those rights unless the government has proven that they they have forfeited them. The burden of proof is not on the person exercising a right.

What is my ask, here? I guess my main request is for my Republican friends to recognize that “election integrity” can be compromised in two different ways, and that the one way street of tightening ID and domicile restrictions is not a simple win for the goal of election integrity. Preventing somebody from voting who should have the right to vote is a rights violation and if you consider the way you feel when your political opponents talk about raising the bar to purchase a firearm, you might understand why they get so concerned when you talk about raising the bar to vote.


A Little Overwhelmed

(Reminder to self: It doesn’t need to be perfect or even represent me perfectly. It just needs to be readable and honest.)

My audience is suddenly a lot bigger. I posted on the Less Wrong facebook group asking for a mentor. I wanted to know if any other people out there belong to the (aspiring) rationalist group and the (reluctant) politicians group, or if my little Venn Diagram section is populated by only me. (So far, there is one other person in this intersection, who ran for office in the Finnish Parliament several years ago…but he didn’t win, so I’m still the only known resident.)

Then Eliezer Yudkowsky shared my blog on facebook…and tagged Robin Hanson and Carl Shulman. Then somebody created a post on Less Wrong announcing my existence.

I have a lot of emotions about this. Here are a few:

1) Guilt, or something like it. “I don’t deserve this attention. There are lots of people in the rationalist community who are smarter than I am and whose thoughts are more deserving of attention, whose careers have and will accomplish more than my career, who are smarter and more-educated and more thoughtful than I.”

2) Nerves. “Now I have one more community to represent (edit: I mean represent in the general sense, not in the sense of voting in the legislature), and it’s a community I respect a lot. If I make a bad choice or say something ridiculous…”

3) Excitement. “All these extremely intelligent people who’ve put a lot of work into educating themselves and overcoming the flaws in their hardware are now aware of my existence and my goals and able to give me advice. This can only be a good thing.”

The guilt is dumb, because people aren’t paying attention because they think I’m the smartest or the best-educated or the most thoughtful around. They’re probably paying attention because I’m doing something unusual in the rationalist community, and they’re curious about how it will go. Let’s shelve the guilt. The excitement makes the most sense.

…Posts I’m planning on making soon:

Advice Received So Far

Is the New Hampshire State House Optimized for Good Decisions?

Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Have Voted for Me (or Anybody Else)


I can’t worry about getting every blog post exactly right, because then I’ll never publish a post, obviating the purpose of having a blog.

I might need to repeat that sentence at the beginning of every post, so don’t be surprised if you see it a lot.

What is my purpose in starting this blog? Transparency. I want the people in Manchester Ward 4 to be able to come here if they’re confused about why I voted the way I did.

I also think it will be helpful as a record for myself. If I make a mistake in my thinking, it will be recorded here, and I will be able to look back on it and learn from it.

Here is my big confession: I am in a state of flux. My opinions are not fixed. I am capable of changing my mind.

What can change my mind? Evidence. If you have strong evidence that a policy will have good results, please bring it to me, and I will consider that policy.

You might be wondering: if I’m not confident in my beliefs, why did I run for office? Isn’t ego the engine that drives politicians?

Here is how I originally decided to run for office:

Fundamental goal: helping people by reducing the causes of human suffering. (This hasn’t changed.)

I believed government is a major cause of suffering. E.g. war, the prison-industrial complex, the criminalization of poverty.

I believed as a general rule, peaceful, voluntary interactions (liberty) are superior to coercion (government). I self-identified as a libertarian and moved to New Hampshire as part of the Free State Project.

I saw some wins for liberty in the State House and some losses. I wanted to help liberty “win” in the State House, so I decided to run for state representative.

After I won my primary, I realized that I could very well have power (albeit a small slice, 1 seat out of 400 in 1 out of 2 chambers of the legislature, in 1 out of 3 branches of the government) and that my decisions would affect other people. I decided it was time to read the Sequences on the blog Less Wrong. I started with How to Actually Change Your Mind. I knew that I would hear a lot of arguments at the State House, some good and some bad. I wanted to be persuaded by good arguments and fail to be persuaded by bad arguments. I wanted to be certain that I was thinking clearly and rationally.

As it turns out, such certainty is hard to come by.

As an aspiring rationalist, I started questioning everything. Well–not everything. I still think suffering is bad. I still want to reduce suffering and promote flourishing. But all my assumptions are under consideration.

If you’re a libertarian reading this and you think that the weight of the evidence is on “your side,” this should not be cause for alarm.

If you’re not a libertarian and you have good evidence for a specific policy you think I should support, please e-mail me at ecomstockedwards (at) gmail (dot) com. Anecdotes are insufficient.

I’m going to do the best I can.