“It’s not chaos,” ACLU of Southern California Legal Director Mark Rosenbaum insisted Monday, after a federal appeals court scrapped the October 7 recall vote. “It’s a restoration of democratic principles.”

Rosenbaum may be right about the second part of his statement, but voters nationwide, and especially in Southern California, can be forgiven if they begin to wonder whether U.S. elections and chaos go hand-in-hand. The mechanics of voting, which at least in image has long been the most straightforward, reliable and nonpartisan component of politics, is becoming at least as confusing and as partisan as issues far more distant from the average voter, like campaign-finance reform or redistricting. Regardless of what the U.S. Supreme Court or a full panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ends up doing, confidence in the integrity of the election process is being undermined.

Take, for example, the series of rulings nearly two years ago that ousted, then reinstated, the elected mayor of Compton on the argument that 300 of his votes must have been cast simply because he was listed first on the ballot. A Los Angeles Superior Court judge signed on to the novel “primacy effect” argument, in the interest of fairness, but in the process threw the already turbulent politics of Compton into deeper chaos.

The ruling by three members of the 9th Circuit Monday putting off the California recall election doesn’t fall into the same category either practically or legally, since no election has yet taken place. But ever since the U.S. Supreme Court stopped the presidential recount in Florida three years ago and cast doubt on the reliability of the punch-card ballots, every ruling that delays or repeals a vote sends a shiver of uncertainty about the process through the minds of voters.

An almost bewildered Los Angeles County Registrar Connie McCormack drove home that point Tuesday as she told county supervisors that her new ballot booth equipment could never handle both the recall and the presidential primary already scheduled for March 2. She noted that Los Angeles County has never had a case of a hanging chad.

“Elections are very fragile,” McCormack said. “I’m concerned about voter confusion.” What is there to be confused about? First, of course, is the question of when voting day is for the recall. If it is in March, what do voters do with the October 7 punch-card absentee ballot? Will far more voters be puzzled by the brand-new (in Los Angeles) InkaVote system, as McCormack claims, than by the punch-cards they have used for years? Will voters know not to go to the one of the special recall polling places set up for October if the vote instead takes place in March? Will voters stationed in Iraq still have special permission from Secretary of State Kevin Shelley to waive their confidentiality and fax in their ballots? Will there be new candidates allowed to file for a March recall? Will the new McCain-Feingold campaign-finance laws, which are not yet in effect, apply to a March recall?

And what, besides, is the effect on the whole special recall process, which was established in the state Constitution to require a limited time for campaigning? If speed of the recall process has been scrapped, what argument remains for the no-runoff provision?

As the Florida fiasco delayed the result of the presidential election three years ago, officials from places like Zimbabwe gleefully criticized U.S. voting irregularities. Meanwhile the American public watched calmly, without panic and with little apprehension. But bemusement could begin to give way to a loss of confidence if more votes are overturned or put off by courts which are depicted in public debate as being as politically partisan as the lawyers who file the suits.

California Common Cause director Jim Knox, who brought the suit two years ago that wound up banning the punch-card machines, admits that the confidence of California voters is being tested. But he insists they will come out ahead.

“In the long run,” Knox said, “the benefit of ensuring that all voters have their votes counted is of greater importance than avoiding uncertainty.”

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