Primary voters feel the sting of rejection

Times Staff Writer

Michael Nola, a poll worker in Claremont, went to two training sessions before election day and was instructed that nonpartisan voters were entitled to cast ballots in the Democratic Party or American Independent Party primaries.

What he never learned in class was that in addition to selecting a candidate, these voters were required to mark a bubble on their ballots indicating which party primary they were voting in. . . . It wasn’t until midafternoon on election day that he and his fellow poll workers learned of the extra bubble, but by then it was too late. Many nonpartisan voters had already cast their ballots, including Nola himself.

“No mention was ever given about the requirement to fill in the dot for either party before choosing a particular candidate,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Both my wife and I lost our votes by this needless oversight.”


Across Los Angeles County, many nonpartisan voters who cast ballots in the Democratic primary have learned to their dismay that their votes in the presidential contest did not matter.

On Friday, some angry voters called on election officials to let their votes count.

“I was disenfranchised, and I am furious,” wrote independent Steve Katinsky in an e-mail. “This nonpartisan registered voting disaster makes Florida look like pikers in election screw-ups. To find out my vote did not count was a sudden and unexpected shock and is completely unacceptable.”

Dean Logan, acting Los Angeles County registrar, estimates that about 100,000 nonpartisan voters cast ballots without marking a party bubble. How many of them intended to vote for a presidential candidate is unclear -- some may have wanted to vote only on the propositions on the ballot.

Logan, who said earlier that he would tabulate as many of the uncounted votes as legally possible, said Friday that his office is attempting to determine how many votes went uncounted and hopes to have an estimate early next week.

“I understand the frustration from the voters’ standpoint,” he said. “The voter shouldn’t have to understand all the complexities of running an election. They should be able to show up and vote and have their ballot counted.”

California Democratic Party spokesman Bob Mulholland said the uncounted votes were unlikely to affect the division of delegates between Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama.

An analysis of the preliminary results by congressional district indicates that none of the outcomes in Los Angeles County appear close enough to be affected, even if the margins changed by several thousand votes, he said.

But Mulholland also had harsh words for Los Angeles County’s voting system.

“It’s a terrible ballot design,” he said. “It requires the voter to take an extra step. The purpose of a democracy is to make a person’s vote easy to count. If it turns out that they were aware of this problem previously, then somebody should be held accountable.”

According to the office of Secretary of State Debra Bowen, Los Angeles is the only county in the state that requires decline-to-state voters to fill in an additional bubble on a ballot if they choose to vote in the Democratic or American Independent primary. It has used similar systems in three previous elections. It also is the only county in the state not to have the candidates’ names printed on the ballot, a factor that will make it difficult to determine voters’ intentions.

Bowen, who oversees elections in California, said she was “astonished to see a ballot design this poorly thought out” when she first looked at the Los Angeles County ballot.

She questioned whether it would be possible to count votes for presidential candidates on any of these ballots because the bubbles for the first three candidates in each party were in the same position on the ballot.

“Logically we know that most of these ballots were Democratic, because the number of American Independent Party voters is very small,” Bowen said. “But in a democracy we don’t guess what the voter’s intent was.”

The bubble issue in Los Angeles overshadowed a variety of voting problems statewide, including complaints from many nonpartisan voters who were denied a Democratic ballot when they went to the polls.

Some independents also reported that they were given the wrong ballot, in some cases a Democratic ballot and in some cases a Republican ballot -- even though the Republican Party did not allow nonpartisans to vote in its primary.

Still other voters went to the polls and found that their recent voter registration had not been recorded or that they had been re-registered without their authorization.

Los Angeles County election officials said they had hoped to avoid problems with the ballot for nonpartisans by educating poll workers and voters about the bubble requirement. And at many precincts across the county, voting went smoothly.

In places where there were problems, some poll workers faulted voters for not reading their instructions more carefully.

“If people do not have the common sense to take the time to read the ballot, then it is their own fault if they are confused,” said poll worker Lilith Marie Haas of Bellflower in an e-mail. “The instructions are clearly printed in the sample ballots mailed out to all voters and in the voting booth.”

But some voters said the instructions were confusing and made it appear as though the party bubble requirement applied just to mail-in voters, not those at the polls.

David Olson, a nonpartisan voter from Los Angeles wrote Logan and urged him to count all the nonpartisan votes cast for president.

“I believe I have been disenfranchised by a confusing system,” he said. “Requiring an additional step is unfair and deprives many citizens of the right to vote.”