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An Election Where All Votes Not Equal

California: Some casting presidential ballots are not aware that they had to be registered in party to affect the delegate count. Process overall ran smoothly.


American democracy, everyone knows, is based on the principle of "one man, one vote." In California's first "blanket" presidential primary Tuesday, however, some votes counted less than others.

For example, if you were officially registered as independent, like Betsy Marsh of Sun City, your vote wasn't going to help any of the candidates on the ballot win the delegates they needed to get to the White House.

"I didn't know that!" complained Marsh, 65, moments after she voted in the Riverside County retirement community. "My vote should count! And especially since I'm an independent, I should be allowed to vote for whomever I want. I don't care for that at all."

Still, the seemingly undemocratic state of affairs--complicated even more by the usual number-stew of propositions on the lengthy ballot--caused only modest confusion at California polls Tuesday. Among the few serious difficulties reported was one in eastern San Bernardino County, where a snowstorm grounded the airplanes set to ferry out ballots from three communities near the Arizona border.

Choosing Among 23 Candidates, 7 Parties

In one sense, the primary seemed to promise voters more choices for president than ever before--23 candidates from seven different parties, all on the same ballot for the first time.

Many people were blissfully unaware, however, that a lawsuit and subsequent court ruling had transformed the presidential primary into separate elections: a "beauty contest" in which all the votes counted and a "delegate count" in which a lot of votes didn't. By contrast, all votes did count in the Senate race and other nonpresidential elections.

In Sacramento, the new primary rules forced the secretary of state's office to post three different tallies for each of the 23 presidential candidates, transforming its Web page into a wall of numbers worthy of the most muscular spreadsheet.

When Washington state held a similar blanket primary last week, some voters tore up their ballots and cussed out election officials, angered by a requirement that they swear an oath of loyalty to their party.

But there were only a few reported glitches among the 22,670 precincts across California. A steady stream of voters cast ballots underneath the mounted head of a bobcat at a gun club in the rural Central Valley community of Wilton. In Koreatown, they stepped inside a recreation center riddled with bullet holes from a recent shooting. State officials expected, when all the votes were counted, about 52% of those eligible would have turned out.

Even many poll workers didn't notice anything different. Each ballot was color- and computer-coded for party affiliation, and machines would do the dirty work of sorting them out. In one embarrassing snafu in a Van Nuys precinct, poll workers who had misplaced their set of Republican ballots gave GOP voters Democratic ballots instead, mistakenly believing there was no difference between them, county officials said.

By 10 a.m., 200 people had voted at the Koreatown precinct run by Dorothy Hinton. Not a single voter had asked about the particulars of the blanket primary. "They already know what they want to do when they come here," Hinton said.

Voters held ballots color-coded to their party affiliation: blue for the Republicans, pale orange for the Democrats, white for the independents and, rather incongruously, lavender for the Green Party.

Those voters who did know the rules for the presidential primary voiced a variety of opinions.

"I know it won't count," said Melinda George, 36, a secretary in San Diego and a Democrat. She voted for George W. Bush because she saw him as more moderate than John McCain. "I want the Republicans to get a message: Drop the right-wing stuff. Maybe I'll vote for Gore in November." But Jackie Rife, 82, was less sanguine. An independent, she didn't realize her vote for Bill Bradley wouldn't win him any delegates. "That really bothers me. I guess you have to put me down as 'ignorant.' I think our votes should have some power behind them."

Rife voted in a precinct in Sun City's town hall, not far from shuffleboard courts and a golf course where mostly senior players spent a relaxed day on the fairways. Rife's husband, Bob, 77, said he knew that if he jumped from the Democratic Party his vote wouldn't "count" but that he nonetheless voted for Bush.

"I knew my vote for Bush wouldn't count, but I just didn't want to vote for Gore," he said.

Some voters, like Kathleen Montagne, 68, and her husband, Richard, 71, said they understood the logistics of the primary--and changed their registration from independent to Republican the day before the deadline just so that their votes for McCain would carry weight.

"I knew the popular vote wouldn't help McCain," said Kathleen Montagne, "even though that's the way it should be. That's what people want, to vote for the man, no matter what party he's in."

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