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Cure Worse Than Disease

Delaying the recall until the March primary election could disenfranchise more voters than holding it in October.

September 17, 2003

The three federal appeals court judges who ordered a delay in the recall election, ostensibly to better serve voters in counties that would have to use punch-card ballots, should have called Conny McCormack. The scenario described by McCormack, the longtime Los Angeles County registrar of voters, is anything but voter-friendly and could end up disenfranchising far more would-be voters than any punch-card errors.

"No one even asked the largest county in the state if we had the capacity to run [the recall balloting] in March," McCormack said. "The answer is no." That's because the March 3 ballot, where the recall would almost certainly have to go, is already a long ballot. There are Democratic presidential primary candidates -- how many, no one knows -- and primaries for U.S. Senate and House seats. Plus some state Legislature seats. And county supervisors and other local races.

It's simply beyond the capacity of the brand-new paper-and-ink ballot system that the county will be using for the first time in March, said Kristin Heffron, McCormack's deputy. "I woke up at 3 a.m. with nightmares," she said.

The recall and the regular primary might have to be printed on two ballots, and poll workers would have to explain what was going on to each voter. It would take twice as long to vote, twice as long to count. At least.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday September 20, 2003 Home Edition California Part B Page 24 Editorial Pages Desk 0 inches; 21 words Type of Material: Correction
March primary -- A Wednesday editorial said California's primary election would be held March 3. It will be held March 2.

"If we can't figure out how to do it, I don't know how voters will be able to figure it out," Heffron said. The new system, which optically scans inked balloons, will be a problem just because of its newness. Studies have found that the older voting systems work well if voter education is good, and L.A. County has a good track record in that regard. The punch-card system here is a familiar one.

What else is wrong? No one even knows whether the recall ballot might be opened up to new candidates, or who might decide that. And what about the absentee votes already cast? Those decisions may now rest with the courts.

There's still a way out, a way to quell the nightmares of county registrars all across the state. The full 11-judge federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed Tuesday to take a look at the arguments on both sides and perhaps reconsider. They don't have a moment to waste.

"If we could just let this election go forward in October it will be far less confusing than anything voters can face in March," Heffron said. Confusion spells disenfranchisement far more certainly than hanging chads.

Those who support delaying the recall until March say they want to ensure fairness by ensuring that as few ballots as possible go uncounted, through either confusion or error. It would have helped for them to check with the experts who work elections. At least the full court has a chance to listen to people who do understand, and to right the mistake.

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