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History in the marking

Super Tuesday presented a unique choice. Too bad that a flawed ballot disenfranchised thousands in L.A.

February 13, 2008

And to think we made fun of Florida.

As of today, we take back the jeers about hanging chads and the unkind comments about inept voters befuddled by butterfly ballots. Somehow it doesn't seem as funny when it happens at home -- voting irregularities in Los Angeles County will disqualify the ballots of thousands of people who went to the polls on Super Tuesday.

In 2000, Florida voters flubbed their choices for president because they were confronted with a ballot whose design was new to them. But that's not the case here. L.A. County officials have long used a ballot whose design was known to consistently disenfranchise unaffiliated voters. They simply did nothing about it.

Nonpartisan voters last week could cast ballots for Democratic or American Independent party candidates in the presidential primary, but to do so, they had to ink in an extra bubble choosing a party. Only registered Republicans could participate in that party's primary. Thousands of unaffiliated voters did not know about the bubble, and about half of the 189,000 ballots cast by "decline to state" voters countywide didn't have it marked. As a result, many of those votes won't count (at least in the presidential race; their votes for ballot measures were still valid).

Election officials are calling this a glitch, but the outcome was entirely foreseeable. In fact, it has happened before. In the March 2004 election, 44% of crossover ballots were unusable, and in June 2006, it was 42%. With numbers this high, the county registrar should have investigated this matter long before now.

This election season is the most exciting in decades. The race to determine whether the Democratic presidential nomination will go to the first woman or the first African American has drawn voters to polls and caucuses in record numbers, and voters in Los Angeles County were no exception.

Under any circumstances, it's troubling to see a vote go uncounted; it's especially so when history is being made.

The county has taken a sample of the decline-to-state ballots in 1% of local precincts, and it estimates that roughly 49,500 votes ultimately cannot be counted, so most likely they will never be included in the candidates' vote tallies. Could they have affected the outcome of Super Tuesday? Could they have changed the delegate count? Acting County Registrar Dean Logan says no; the margins of victory were too large. Maybe so, but this hasn't been a process designed to instill confidence within the electorate. The county needs to produce a new ballot design before the next election.

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