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Bubblegate Ballot: Votes They Didn't Count On 

Nonpartisan voters get screwed when presidential choices are tossed

Wednesday, Feb 6 2008
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LAST FRIDAY, MEMBERS OF THE NONPARTISAN election group CourageCampaign.org were surfing the Web when they discovered a blog post noting that Los Angeles County voters faced what CC.org chairman Rick Jacobs calls "bubble trouble." In order for the county's 776,000 voters registered as nonpartisan to pick a Democrat or American Independent in the primary, they would be required to mark an extra bubble selecting the party they intended to choose.

After a weekend of research, Jacobs says, CC.org contacted the office of L.A. County's Registrar of Voters on Sunday and was told that word of a widely unexpected change was correct — an extra bubble had to be inked, and, yes, it could prove to be a big headache on Election Day.

The bottom line: If the "declaration" bubble was not inked on nonpartisan ballots, the voters' choice for president would be voided, though not their votes on statewide ballot measures.

By noon on Election Day, CC.org's fears were realized as voters began complaining that poll workers were not explaining the extra bubble to unsuspecting voters at many polling places. The registrar's office tried to get word out, but it's unlikely anyone will ever learn how many primary votes for president were lost.

CC.org is asking the registrar's office to expand the normal 1 percent sampling it conducts after Election Day to determine how many voters failed to fill in the extra bubble, thus rendering their vote for president void. The bubble trouble is apparently mostly confined to Los Angeles County because of its reliance on the Inkavote system, which, ironically, is in place to prevent a "hanging chad" controversy.

"This is not Florida 2000, it's Los Angeles 2008," L.A. City Councilman Eric Garcetti told the L.A. Weekly. Garcetti, a prominent Barack Obama supporter, acknowledged that the snafu could leave a bitter aftertaste among voters who will claim that most of the lost votes would have gone to their candidate. Things could turn particularly partisan within the Democratic Party if the insurgent Obama loses by a Florida-like margin in crucial California congressional districts that are expected to count heavily in the Democrats' convoluted awarding of delegates.

"Whoever designed this ballot," Garcetti said, "literally put in an extra impediment. Obama is all about bringing people in. To have worked as hard as we have over the last year — I would hate to see the election decided against us because of bad [ballot] design."

Acting Registrar Dean Logan later explained on TV that the county has used the extra bubble since 2002. Some officials bristle at the public criticisms, citing the problem's confinement to Los Angeles County and the fact that the extrabubble design has been in place for years without incident.


THE POLITICAL BECAME THE PERSONAL for me because, like many registered nonpartisans, I had tried to vote for a Democratic primary candidate. When I explained my desire to do so at my Echo Park polling station, a worker handed me a nonpartisan ballot, then pointed me toward a Democratic booth. I located my candidate and carefully inked that bubble, finishing the statewide ballot measures in a flash.

I didn't notice the party-affiliation bubble I was supposed to fill in above the presidential candidates' names. My bubble quickly burst as I drove away and heard about the controversy on Larry Mantle's KPCC radio show. A few hours later, a Weekly colleague told me that when she had requested the exact same thing at her Hollywood polling station, a worker went to great lengths to tell her to ink the top bubble.

Undaunted, I returned to my polling station around 6:30 p.m. The auditorium was packed, and piles of stale pan dulce now lay about on chairs. I explained my plight to a poll worker and, showing him my ballot stub, requested that he void my old ballot and allow me to vote again.

After making a phone call, miraculously, the man told me that he thought this could be done, but I'd have to return before the 8 p.m. closing. I suddenly felt lucky — not only was one lone individual's request being granted, but there would be an air of closing-time intrigue. I didn't have to beat the system, because the system worked!

When I returned and found the poll worker, he took me to the back of the auditorium and gravely lowered his voice, like a doctor delivering bad news. It couldn't be done, he said, and, hauling out a sheaf of ballots, showed me why. The serial number of the detachable stub at the top of each nonpartisan ballot didn't match the number at the bottom, nor were there any identifying numbers along the side of the ballot. I walked out with my stub, which was now good for nothing but a free beer somewhere. It was going to take a lot more than that to make me forget this day.

Reach the writer at smikulan@laweekly.com

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