In the past 24 hours there has been considerable scrutiny of Major League Baseball’s All-Star voting process. It began yesterday afternoon when SB Nation’s Bless You Boys blog put up a post in which its author claimed to vote far more than the 35-vote limit with no obvious indication that his votes weren’t counted. We linked to that post yesterday afternoon.
I didn’t mention it at the time but, before putting up that post, I myself voted multiple times with multiple email address — several which were non-working email addresses I made up on the spot — in order to see if the system was as easily circumvented as SB Nation said it was. There was no confirmation email or anything of that nature following a vote with a bad email address. I received a nice “thanks for voting” message at the end of the process. My votes, at least from my perspective, we all accepted. I laughed heartily at this as I thought about how I was helping make A.J. Pierzynski an All-Star.
However, since yesterday Bob Bowman, President of Business & Media for Major League Baseball, has hit back at the idea that the system is being gamed. He offered a statement (which we ran in an update) in which he said that as many as 60-65 million votes have been culled from the accepted voting total, which currently sits just north of 365 million. These votes were culled following review of provided email address for evidence of their fraudulent nature. The voter may think he has lodged a fraudulent vote, but they’re not being counted for the most part.
This explanation and this process seemed weird to me. Just about every online vote and survey you do of any consequence asks that you provide an email address and, prior to accepting your input, verifies it by sending you an email and asking you to click on a link to make sure you are who you say you are. Indeed, the process is so ubiquitous that it was somewhat jarring not to see it with respect to the All-Star vote. So I called Bowman this afternoon and asked him why MLB doesn’t do the same thing.
At the outset Bowman noted that Major League Baseball has used this process for ten years, since the advent of online All-Star voting. It’s getting more attention now this year than in the past because (a) paper ballots are gone, leaving online voting the only game in town (I tended to be a paper ballot guy in the past); and (b) after years of fairly straight forward results, the Kansas City Royals anomaly has put the nature of voting to the fore in a way it hasn’t been in the past. Bowman said, however, that while the 365 million or so votes is much higher than we’ve seen in the past, the ratio of those culled after the fact to those cast is about the same as it ever has been.
Still, 65 million against 365 million is a lot to cull. And, as Bowman noted, doing that culling requires the help of some experts who do things like cross-check IP addresses, the time span between ballots and the form of the email addresses (e.g. firstname.lastname@example.org vs. email@example.com is tough to spot easily), rendering this an awfully tough job, one assumes. So why bother? Why not just verify emails beforehand?
“The old concern was bots,” Bowman said, referring to automated scripts or macros which registered phony votes. “Today we’re seeing more esoteric means of getting past security, requiring a post-facto approach.” Bowman added that while these “esoteric” efforts, which more often than not may be manual, aren’t as large in number as bot attacks, they’re not as easily thwarted via old verification means.
“We immediately ping an email to see if it’s valid,” Bowman said. “And it could be valid at that moment. Some of these email addresses can be created and then expire in ten minutes,” he said, adding that it’s then necessary to ping them again later, after the vote is registered or to employ other after-the-fact means of verification. Why not send a message to the user when their vote is rejected or say up front that the emails will be checked later? “We don’t want to get into an arms race with someone looking to buck the system.”
There is some logic to this approach, but it certainly seems like a bit of a Rube Goldberg Device-method of preventing voting fraud. And one wonders why other online votes, surveys, portals and the like — including ones with a much greater need for integrity and security than a fan vote for the All-Star Game — don’t employ the same “make them think they’re getting away with it” strategy. One reason that springs to mind is that Major League Baseball and its corporate partner in the All-Star Vote, Esurance, have an interest in generating as much traffic and interest as possible in the vote and that stricter security measures would depress the numbers.
When I asked Bowman about that I couched it as the “cynical” view. He didn’t agree that it was cynical at all and admitted that people could reasonably think that. But, while he did not deny that interest-generation in the vote is something Major League Baseball is seeking, he shot down the idea that traffic and hype in this regard is what has led to the system in place. For one thing, he said, the vote totals announced are the post-cull vote totals. At least for the most part. It takes 24 hours or so to scrub out the bad votes so, yes, on Monday when vote totals are announced it may have one day’s worth of bad votes in it, but for the most part the bad votes are gone. For another thing, 300 million votes in 40 days of voting weigh very little against the some 200 million pageviews MLB.com typically receives in a given day.
Finally, I asked Bowman about the anomaly of the Kansas City Royals dominance in the vote. He agreed that it looks strange, but chalked it up to enthusiasm of Royals’ fans. Still “the horse is still in the pasture,” with respect to the final vote totals, “it’s not in the barn,” Bowman said. Perhaps the Royals will take a step back in voting in the final three vote result releases?
What to make of all of this? In some ways the All-Star vote seems like a microcosm of the All-Star Game. It has a nominal purpose — the selection of a good team in the former instance, the determination of home field advantage for the World Series in the latter — that suffers because it has come into conflict with what the process has become: a means of generating interest and serving sponsors in the former instance, a means of putting on a big entertainment in the latter. Simply put, you don’t have half of the problems with fraudulent votes if you don’t allow people to vote 35 times, but you don’t get to trumpet the fact that multiple times more votes were cast for the All-Star Game than in the last presidential election either.
But that’s the system the powers that be have decided they want. And, as such, they’re forced to comb the vote totals after the fact like the SEC combs stock trading records. And they’re forced to talk to bloggers in their basement to dispel the notion that any chicanery is afoot on an otherwise boring Friday afternoon.
Fair trade? Let’s wait until we see if Omar Infante is the starting second basement for the American League before we pass judgment.