Six years ago, Los Angeles County began using a ballot for nonpartisan voters that had a little-noticed design flaw. Confusion over how to mark the ballot, critics say, caused tens of thousands of votes to go uncounted in three elections between 2002 and 2006.
At the time, election officials knew that some votes were not being counted but saw no need to make changes. After all, the missing votes went unnoticed in the three primary elections and no one complained.
That all changed with the Feb. 5 presidential primary.
Just before election day, a grass-roots advocacy group called the Courage Campaign realized that the ballot was defective because it required nonpartisans wanting to vote in a party primary to mark an extra bubble designating which party they were choosing.
On Feb. 4, the organization warned the Los Angeles County registrar-recorder's office that many voters could easily miss the party bubble and that many votes could go uncounted.
The group also charged that the ballot design violated state law by requiring some voters to take an extra step not required of others.
After the election, a vote survey conducted by acting Los Angeles County Registrar Dean Logan found that about 50,000 nonpartisan crossover votes were not counted, sparking outrage among voters across the county.
Some have likened it to the 2000 Florida debacle of butterfly ballots and hanging chads.
"Our contention is that the ballot design is illegal, and that it is illegal not to count the votes," said Rick Jacobs, chairman of the Courage Campaign and former chairman of Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign in California.
The ballot problem affected only those people who chose not to affiliate with a political party when they registered to vote. These voters, whom California places in a category called "decline to state," were allowed to vote in the Democratic Party or American Independent Party primaries Feb. 5, but not in the Republican Party primary.
In Los Angeles County, decline-to-state voters who wanted to vote for a Democratic or American Independent presidential candidate needed to vote in a polling booth designated for that party.
Once in the polling booth and given an ink stamp, they were required to fill in the circle indicating which of the two party primaries they were voting in.
But many people found the system confusing. Also, many poll workers didn't understand it, and so were unable to advise voters as to what they were supposed to do.
Logan, who took office Jan. 4, acknowledges that the ballot created confusion among voters and says the county will abandon the double-bubble design and have a new ballot design in time for the June primary. It is unclear what the additional cost would be.
Logan also is investigating whether any of the 50,000 votes can be counted.
"It's not a good ballot style," Logan said. "It is difficult to discuss this without sounding defensive, but I want this fixed more than anyone."
Some voters believe the uncounted votes might favor Sen. Barack Obama over Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Democratic primary.
But Logan and Democratic Party officials say the margins in the race are so large that the votes are not likely to affect the statewide outcome or the county allocation of delegates.
Los Angeles County, the only county in the state to use this ballot design, first adopted it for the March 2002 primary. Keeping costs down was a major factor in the decision, Logan said, as was a desire to minimize the number of different ballots and keep things simple for poll workers.
For election officials, running an election in Los Angeles County is a daunting logistical exercise.
With nearly 4 million registered voters in 4,379 precincts, the county is the largest single voting district in the nation.
The Feb. 5 election alone cost the county about $30 million.
Election officials say that a primary is the most complex kind of election. The number of political parties -- six on Feb. 5 -- means a multiplicity of ballots. Crossover voting that allows nonpartisans to vote in certain party primaries can make organizing the vote even more complicated.
"Election officials will tell you they despise these elections," said former L.A. County Registrar Conny McCormack, who retired in January, a month before the vote. "Voters don't understand them, and poll workers don't understand them."
There are other peculiarities about L.A. County's election system that set it apart.
It is the only county in California to use the InkaVote Plus system, in which voters darken bubbles on their ballot with a special InkaVote pen.
The names of the candidates are listed in the "vote recorder" book in the polling booth but are not printed on the ballot itself. The ballot contains only numbers representing the candidates and the bubbles where voters mark their choices.