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VoteFair American Idol poll

American Idol Season 8 commentary

Note that the following commentary about text messaging being the deciding factor was written before the news about the text-messaging parties for Kris Allen.

Finale commentary

Adam Lambert has been at the top of the VoteFair poll every week except one (Top 11), so he is clearly more popular.  That didn't change during Tuesday night's voting.  So why did Kris Allen win?  Text messaging—from Kris' younger fan base—tipped the balance.

Why was there a close balance?  As pointed out here last week (and each season), the official American Idol voting mostly just measures phone-traffic capacity.  Of course the three phone lines for one contestant have the same capacity as the three phone lines for the other contestant.  What would be much more meaningful is to measure how many attempted calls for Adam Lambert got a busy signal compared with how many attempted calls for Kris Allen got a busy signal.  Another way to correctly identify who is more popular is (as explained below in more detail) to statistically determine how many different phone numbers are getting through on each phone line.  Fewer people can keep a phone line just as busy as a greater number of people.

Something similar happens in governmental elections.  A political party can tip the balance in their favor by reducing the number of voting booths in districts where they are weak, and increasing the number of voting booths in districts where they are strong.  Longer lines discourage voters, and shorter lines (where there are more voting booths) allow greater voting traffic.

Something similar happens in American Idol voting.  Thousands of text messages can be sent over a single phone connection during the same time that another single phone connection handles a single voter listening to a few seconds of a contestant's recorded message.  That tips the balance in favor of text messaging, which favors younger fans, who presumably tend to prefer Kris Allen.

Last year's upset occurred because phone lines stayed open later, beyond the bedtime of the younger fans of David Archuleta.  The American Idol show doesn't share any voting details (not that they should), so we can't know for sure what causes the upsets.  But we do know that dramatic results increase attention, and that's all the show's producers really want—so they can charge more for the show's commercials, and so the top singers attract more people to their stadium concerts.  In other words, fairness is not the show's priority.

To all of you who voted here this season, thank you for participating!!


Top 2 commentary

In the Top 3 week it was announced that there were "only" about one million votes—out of about 80 million—separating Adam Lambert and Kris Allen.  Here's a tip to help your favorite: When you hear the phone message confirming your vote, hang up without listening to all of it!  That allows more calls to get through.  Also (as stated here each season) use a land line, not a cell phone, if you can.  That's because cell-phone towers are congested (giving busy signals when land lines aren't giving busy signals).

I was hoping the vote counters would have ensured fair results by using statistics.  Specifically they can use a statistical sample of votes to identify how many different phone numbers get through for each contestant.  Greater diversity reveals greater support.  To understand this in simpler terms, imagine 100 calls from 20 different people, and compare that to 100 calls from just 5 people.  Obviously if there are fewer people accounting for the same number of calls, they are getting through more often compared to a larger number of people who are getting through less often.

Over the years the vote-counters have improved their vote counting, but again they didn't get the final week's result right.  Based on the poll results here, and Adam's amazing singing ability, he is clearly more popular.  Of course he will pack stadiums even as the runner-up, so the results don't affect the future so much as to affect the perception of fairness in how the results are determined.

Yes, it seems like just counting carefully should be enough.  Yet consider how long lines at election polling places affect governmental election results.  Speaking of which, here in Oregon everyone votes by mail, so there are no polling places, and voter turnout is higher.  That's part of why Presidential elections need electoral votes (but without the "electoral college") instead of simply using popular votes.  Electoral votes prevent a high-turnout state like Oregon from overriding a low-turnout state experiencing stormy weather on election day.  In a similar way, if American Idol cared about the fairness of its results, it would make fair adjustments to balance text messages, completed phone calls on land lines, completed phone calls on cell phones, and busy-signal calls on both land lines and cell phones.


Allison's early elimination

In the Top 4 week, Allison Iraheta was eliminated too early.  She was second-most popular.  So how did this happen?  Let's look at last week's VoteFair poll results:

Popularity Choice VoteFair
vote count

(for comparison)
First-most popular Adam Lambert  Ranking score is 68 for Adam Lambert 995 voters marked Adam Lambert as their first choice
Second-most popular Allison Iraheta  Ranking score is 40 for Allison Iraheta 245 voters marked Allison Iraheta as their first choice
Third-most popular Kris Allen  Ranking score is 19 for Kris Allen 365 voters marked Kris Allen as their first choice
Fourth-most popular Danny Gokey  Ranking score is 0 for Danny Gokey 251 voters marked Danny Gokey as their first choice

Notice that Allison Iraheta had the fewest first-choice votes, as indicated by the length of the horizontal bar in the Traditional Vote Count column.  (She got 245 first-choice votes, and Danny Gokey got 251 first-choice votes.)  That's what the official vote-counting uses (although unlike here they allow multiple votes from the same voter).  Basically Allison Iraheta is very popular as a second or third choice, but not popular enough as a first choice, which translates into fewer phone calls.  Another factor is that Danny Gokey appeals to his future audience of Christian-music fans, which is a well-networked fan base, somewhat analogous to the Country-music fans who made it easy for Carrie Underwood to win in Season 4.  That factor can be called vote concentration, which is related to vote splitting.  Fortunately this unfairness won't affect the final outcome.

Unfortunately we use the same primitive, first-choice vote counting in government elections, and that's why we have special-interest puppets instead of problem-solving leaders running our country.  Please keep learning about how voting should be done so that we can sooner adopt 1-2-3 ballots and pairwise ballot counting in primary elections, which is where the biggest (yes, really!) unfairnesses occur.  That simple change will allow us to elect leaders who know how to restore economic prosperity.  As a simple example, we can align the self-interests of financial-services executives with widespread interests simply by heavily taxing financial-service executives who sell their company's stock without waiting at least four years after they acquire the stock.  These kinds of simple solutions await us once we have the right leaders in charge.  Please tell others that 1-2-3 ballots, not the usual single-mark ballots, should be used in primary elections!  Thanks!


Top 5 week, Adam Lambert in bottom two

In the Top 5 week, the surprise was that Adam Lambert ended up in the bottom two, even though he is clearly the most popular.  Apparently lots of people assumed that lots of other people were voting for him such that he didn't need more votes.  This is called strategic voting, and it's a wise approach if there is accurate information about how many votes each person is likely to get.  With the show not sharing that information about the top singers, strategic voting can lead to unexpected results.


Early elimination of Alexis Grace

During the Top 11 week, the Top 11 results revealed that Alexis Grace was in sixth place, so she was eliminated much too early.  Fortunately the new rule could have allowed the judges to save her.  Unfortunately she was stuck with singing a bad song choice.  This unfair elimination demonstrates (once again) that vote splitting (see Wikipedia) can cause the person with the fewest first-choice votes to be someone other than the least popular choice.  That's the point of conducting these polls, namely to teach how voting should be done when the results need to be fair (which is a different goal than packing stadiums for concerts).


Top 13 selection fairness

Was this year's method of selecting the top 13 fair?  Yes, except that Group One had a higher proportion of the best male singers, which meant that Anoop Desai had to go through the Wild Card week to get into the top 13.  The strategy of choosing top vote getters—instead of dropping the ones with the fewest votes—fits with the show's desire to identify who will pack a stadium, but the same approach is not fair in elections where fair representation is more important.


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