Double-bubble trouble down south

The Courage Campaign is gathering petition signatures online urging Los Angeles County acting Registrar of Voters Dean Logan to hand-count about 94,000 decline-to-state ballots cast in last week’s Super Tuesday presidential primary election. From the campaign’s Web site:

A few days before the primary, lawyers for the Courage Campaign uncovered the “double bubble” problem — a shocking requirement that “Decline-to-State” voters fill in a redundant “Democratic” bubble (on a ballot clearly marked “Democratic Party”) as well as a bubble next to their preferred presidential candidate. Our legal team realized that — without the “Democratic” bubble filled in — the county’s optical scanners would void votes for “President of the United States,” regardless of voter intent.

dts-ballot.jpgActually, although the Courage Campaign “uncovered” this just before the primary, LA’s ballots have been this way for years — a problem that has been blasted in the past, and probably should have been fixed before now but wasn’t.

Nonetheless, Los Angeles last week saw a record-breaking turnout of 189,000 voters registered without party affiliation, and about half of those now stand to be ignored because they didn’t fill out the party bubble as well as the candidate’s bubble on their ballots.

A Sacramento Bee editorial put the disenfranchisement’s scale in perspective: during the 2000 presidential election’s Florida butterfly ballot debacle, 19,120 Palm Beach County ballots went uncounted because of the bad ballot design. Here, we’ve potentially got five times as many victims.

Here’s what Logan said in a statement issued the day of the election:

The manner in which cross over voting was presented in Los Angeles County was no different than that of the last three statewide primary elections (2002, 2004 and 2006). The voter instructions provided in the sample ballot booklets, which were mailed to all voters in the County, highlighted the steps to be taken by nonpartisan voters when voting a cross over ballot. Likewise, poll worker training materials and the actual vote recorder page instructions were consistent with past practice. Additionally, this office engaged in extensive voter outreach and education focused on cross over voting.
In cooperation and consultation with the Secretary of State we will seek to determine whether or not this issue has potential impact on the outcome of the Democratic Presidential contest. If such an impact is established, we will exhaust every available option under state law to count cross over votes on nonpartisan ballots where the intent of the voter can be clearly and definitively determined.

Glancing at the election returns as posted so far, Barack Obama took three districts down there — Diane Watson‘s 33rd, Maxine Waters‘ 35th and Laura Richardson‘s 37th — while Hillary Clinton took the rest. In a few LA districts, the victory margins might be such that these uncounted ballots mean the difference of a few delegates one way or another under the California Democratic Party’s byzantine allocation rules.

For my own part, however, the delegate count is a secondary concern. I think public officials should bend over backwards to make voting as simple to understand as possible and to ensure every vote is counted, whether it can tip a balance or not.

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.