Scrap the swingometer - the public don't get it

20 May 2010

Election programmes on television might as well ditch their sophisticated swingometers and graphics, because most viewers have no idea what they mean.

The chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry came to this conclusion after the organisation ran a "swingers' election quiz" prior to the General Election.

In the national competition, devised as a diversion during the lulls of the election results, chemistry and politics questions were paired to demonstrate the similarity of the underlying mathematics.

Dr Richard Pike said that swing in voting is similar to the dilution and concentration of chemical solutions. Many entrants were able to do those simple calculations, but put into a political context most were stumped because they did not carefully read the definition of 'swing'.

"Swing is defined as the percentage of votes in the current election minus the percentage of votes in the last election.

"Of the 70 people that even attempted the question (see below), only 13 came up with the correct answer.

"If the viewers aren't able to understand swing on pen and paper with time to think about it, how could they gain any benefit from frantic broadcasters throwing percentages left, right and centre?

"Entrants doing the quiz while watching the election may have been influenced by the lateness of the hour, or their traditional election-night refreshments.

"The results, however, pointed to problems in applying mathematics to the 'real world', and understanding the meaning of percentages, which have flummoxed both children and adults since they were first invented!

"We need to do more for youngsters at school for them to appreciate the benefit of this concept in understanding changes in numbers," said Dr Pike.

The question asked in the RSC Election Night Swingers Quiz was:

"At the last General Election, in one particular constituency, 10,000 people voted for Party A, 8,000 for Party B and 12,000 for various other parties, which each polled less than the Party B candidate. What percentage swing to Party B would be needed (movement as a ratio of all voters in the constituency) for that Party to just win the constituency in the forthcoming General Election, assuming a proportionately identical shift in voting across all non-Party B voters from the last General Election, and the same overall total number of people voting? Answer to one decimal place."

(The answer is 4.6%)

Downloadable Files

Link icon RSC Election night swinger quiz answers
View Richard Pike's solutions to the election night quiz

PDF files require Link icon Adobe Acrobat Reader

Related Link

10 Downing Street

Be an Election Night swinger

26 April 2010

Polls, swings and statistics - everyone should be able to do our election maths quiz, says the RSC chief executive

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