On February 5, I was in Los Angeles, helping with a nonpartisan election protection effort. We received calls reporting plenty of problems, some familiar, some new. But early in the day, it was clear that there was a serious issue confronting independent voters.
In California, voters unaffiliated with any party could vote in the primary for the Democratic party or the American Independent party (the Republican primary was open to registered Republicans only). Theoretically.
Problem one: bad information. Some pollworkers didn’t offer the choice of a partisan primary ballot. Worse, others did affirmative harm, incorrectly telling unaffiliated voters that they couldn’t vote in a partisan primary.
Problem two: bad ballots. In Los Angeles county, the unaffiliated ballots baffled thousands of voters. The ballots themselves were just numbers and bubbles, like the answer sheet for a standardized test. The candidates were listed in a separate booklet, like the test’s exam questions. Democratic candidates, rotating in position from voter to voter, were assigned to bubbles #8–15; American Independent candidates, also rotating, were assigned bubbles #8–10. So bubbles #8–10 could have been votes for either party. To tell one from the other, voters were supposed to fill in a different bubble—bubble # 5 or 6—with their party choice.
The “double bubble” system was sufficiently confusing that about 49,500 voters got it wrong. Officials are now trying to determine whether they can reliably count some of the ballots: for example, voters who filled in bubbles #11–15 (which should be unambiguous Democratic votes), or voters in precincts where all of the unaffiliated voters who wanted partisan ballots checked in for the same party’s primary. It looks like the Los Angeles county clerk may now try to count both categories. But that will still leave the many ambiguous ballots uncounted, and can’t possibly help the people who were turned away without casting a ballot at all.
In the continuing brouhaha, one element has been left out of
the conversation: properly programmed touchscreen systems might have avoided the
toil and trouble of both problems.
To be crystal clear: this is not an endorsement of touchscreens over optical scans, or punchcards, or rock-paper-scissors. There are plenty of concerns with most, if not all, of the existing touchscreen systems. This is also not a declaration that all paper ballots are flawed: the design that confused thousands of Angelenos could have, and should have, been avoided.
Still, both the pollworker problem and the ballot problem were big issues caused by small lapses in a series of rules. We’ve seen both types before, and we’ll see them again, and it’s useful to keep our own limitations in mind. Most election procedures are sets of “if, then” instructions: if unaffiliated, then ask about a partisan ballot . . . if partisan ballot, then ask which party. There are an awful lot of “if, then” rules for people to keep track of on election day. And one thing computers can be good at is walking people through those rules, step by step.