Wednesday, February 13, 2008

LA County Registrar's report estimates 49,500 presidential votes will go uncounted

Last week, millions of Californians participated in the Presidential primary election. Excitement was extremely high, for this was the first time in a generation that California voters would have a say in selecting the political parties' nominees for president.

Nearly 20 percent of California's 15 million registered voters are independent, and unaffiliated with any party. In this election, however, the Democratic Party allowed independents to vote in its primary election. In Los Angeles, nearly 190,000 independent voters did so. Unfortunately, at least 49,500 of those voters will not have their votes counted, according to this report released Monday by Dean Logan, Acting Registrar of Voters for Los Angeles County.

It turns out that in LA county independents, who are also known as "decline-to-state" voters, have to jump through an extra hurdle to get their votes counted. They not only have to proactively request a partisan ballot; they also have to mark two bubbles on that ballot to indicate their choice for president - one indicating the party the voter is voting with, and a second indicating the candidate for which the voter is voting. This need to mark two bubbles makes no sense from the voter's perspective -- nowhere else, in no other situation, are voters asked to make to two marks to indicate their choice. In LA, this requirement was entirely driven by the voting technology the county uses. Without that first mark, the software cannot determine which candidate is awarded the vote.

Although Mr. Logan has apologized for this error, it is truly inexcusable, especially in light of the fact that this problem occurred two times previously, in the 2004 and 2006 California primaries. Logan previously told the LA County supervisors that only forty percent of the ballots from decline-to-state voters in those two elections were counted. The county knew there was a huge undervote occurring for a certain class of voters, and yet continued to use the same voting system and ballot design. Why? The ballot is designed based on what works best for election administrators, not what works best for the voters.

While it's likely true that some of the votes cannot be counted with 100 percent accuracy, many of them could be. This is an odd election, one where the voting process is administered by the state and counties, but the impact of the results are determined by the parties. The county should count those ballots by hand, to the best of their ability, and give the results to the Democatic and American Independent parties and let them decide what to do with them. If 90 percent of the ballots can be counted with a 95 percent degree of confidence in the accuracy, that's probably good enough for the parties.

In the case of the California Democratic Party, delegate votes are awarded on a proportional basis, by congressional district. There are 18 congressional districts contained entirely or partly in Los Angeles county. These include CD 22, CDs 23-39, CD 42, and CD 46. In CD 29, for example, which is entirely within LA County, Hillary Clinton recieved 42,144 votes while Barack Obama received 35,735 votes. The difference between the two candidates is 6,409; the number of decline-to-state voters registered in that district is 66,254. While we don't know how many actually voted in the election, if the uncounted decline-to-state voters' ballots were counted, the results in some congressional district would change and in turn, possibly the number of delegates awarded to Obama and Clinton.

In addition to the very real possiblity that the delegate vote count from California could be impacted depending on whether or not these votes get counted, there's another reason to count them, even if the count isn't 100 percent accurate. People who vote want to know that their vote mattered. They want to see it show up somewhere. I know I'm not alone when I log online after an election, look at the total vote for a candidate and get a feeling of satisfaction knowing that my vote made the total 1,404,568 instead of 1,404,567.

There are 50,000 California voters living in Los Angeles who are being denied the satisfaction of seeing their vote show up. These are people who took time out from their day to go to the polls, who went through extra hoops to request a partisan ballot in the first place, and who are likely left feeling that voting is a futile exercise.

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