On more than just local government

Monday, May 09, 2005

But, I stole it fair and square

San Diego Mayor Dick Murphy resigned last week amid growing concerns about his stewardship of the financial crisis that threatens California’s second largest city. The speed of his departure was certainly assisted by an article in Time Magazine citing Murphy as one of the three worst Mayors in the United States.

The problem is Murphy should never have been in the Mayor’s chair in the first place. Had all the votes been counted in the City’s last municipal election, Donna Frye, a Councilwoman who began a write-in campaign late in the process as the depth of the financial crisis became clearer, would have been properly sworn in. Only an arbitrary decision by the Registrar of Voters (ROV), Sally McPherson, ruled that 5,551 Frye write-in votes that did not have a filled in bubble next to the written name were void. The margin of difference between Frye and Murphy was slightly more than 2,100.

People seem to have this belief that paper ballots are the panacea to accurately count votes. History has shown that it is not, and the Frye case is a perfect example. Paper ballots are far more prone to fraud and error than electronic voting has proven to be. In addition, a situation like Frye’s could not have occurred on an electronic machine because a write-in vote is automatically tallied as such. There is no requirement to do anything other than enter the name.

The bubble fill-in requirement is, in fact, only important to the ROV. That’s because the computer system used to read the pieces of paper (yes, Virginia, it is all tallied by computer) needs a mark to let it know that there is a name in the write-in box. The law, as presently written, does require these bubbles on paper ballots. However, other parts of the law enable the ROV to determine the “intent of the voter” in recount situations. The San Diego ROV and a municipal judge hearing the case ignored that. It is on appeal.

Hopefully, this situation will be clarified upon the passage of SB 1050 (Bowen). This bill, which cleared the State Senate last week, specifies that the bubble is "for the convenience of the elections official counting the ballot and that, if the name of a qualified write-in candidate is written in the blank space provided, failure by a voter to mark the voting space shall not preclude the voter's ballot from being counted if the intent of the voter can be determined.”

Part of the problem with the counting was that boxes of votes kept on popping up at various ROV offices. In King County, a heavy Gregoire area, at least 785 votes are known to have been “mishandled,” with three ballots stuck in counting machines. At least 200 ballots were set aside to research the voter’s status. These were never processed.

Paper is not a perfect solution. In Redondo Beach, which uses the Ink-A-Vote paper system, every pass through the tallying machines gave a different number in the Mayoral race. A hand recount provided yet another number and, with a difference of one vote between two candidates, we still aren’t sure that every vote was actually counted.

There is no more important bulwark of democracy than a fair vote count. It’s time we used all the tools available to make that happen.