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Monday, March 4, 2002

Make Your Vote Count

Or, Make Them Count Your Vote

By Betsey Culp

I’m a little puzzled by the suggestion of the opponents to Proposition A that instant run-offs will confuse voters. Department of Elections chief Tammy Haygood must be, too, because Prop A is beginning to look like a cakewalk compared to the complexities of this year‘s election.

Actually, as far as Prop A goes, I’m more than puzzled. I’m highly offended by the low estimation of my intelligence. Proposition A will require voters to rank candidates in order of preference. Come on, guys. You’ve all done it at some point in your life: “I like Sally best, then Mary, and then Roberta [or Sam, Marc, and Robert, if you prefer].”

Or what about “I’ll take chocolate. If they don’t have chocolate, I’ll take peach. And if they don’t have peach, bring me vanilla’? And under Prop A no one has to stand there, counting off flavors on fingers and toes, because DOE has already worked out a voting-machine program to handle the multiple choices.

So much for Prop A. But what about the election of March 2002?

It’s a disaster waiting to happen, the nightmare that lurks under the pillow of every election official. Only instead of playing out in the privacy of one’s own boudoir, it’ll take place under the full scrutiny of the public, the press, and probably a good many people in Sacramento.

Let’s look at a few figures. If you find them mind-boggling, you’re very astute – they are.

According to DOE, there are 453,955 registered voters in San Francisco, slightly more than half the population of the city. They will vote in 700 precincts, spread over 648 physical locations.

So far, so good.

But there’s no one-size-fits-all ballot for this election. Districts for the various races – for example, for State Assembly and U.S. House of Representatives – don’t necessarily overlap, and each precinct must be provided with ballots for just the races it covers. In addition, this is a primary election 0 that is, an election where party members nominate the candidate to represent their party in November. Therefore, certain races can only be decided by voters in a specific political party. This means that a registered Democrat in Precinct 3938, in Bernal Heights, must receive a ballot listing different candidates from the one that a registered Republican gets in Precinct 3215, on Russian Hill.

Got that?

But the fun has just begun, because this is “modified open primary.” In some races, in some cases, voters who have declined to register with a party – that’s about 160,000 in this free-spirited city – get to choose which party’s candidates they want to vote for. In others, they don’t. But no matter what, they all need ballots to fit their own particular situation.

All in all, DOE has prepared 353 different ballots, which fall into 29 different ballot types. All in all, it has produced 3.8 million trilingual ballot cards for the citizens of San Francisco.

Most of these ballot cards will make their way into the Eagle voting machines and be counted automatically. But nearly 65,000 voters have requested absentee ballots, which require special attention. So do an inestimable number of provisional ballots, filed by voters who don’t fit the usual roster patterns.

DOE has announced that an army of about 3,800 people will work to ensure a smooth-running election: “permanent and long-term temporary [Department of Elections staff members], elections officers, Field Election Deputies, general support workers, "Eagle" voting machine field technicians, Data and Telecommunications Information services staff and many others.”

It’s the “elections officers” who sit at each polling place, handing out ballots and helping you to cast your vote. They’re private citizens, just like you, except that they have undergone a whirlwind training course and come armed with a 90-page training manual of instruction. They’re supervised by an “inspector,“ also a volunteer, presumably experienced enough to know which end of the Eagle voting machine is up. But last week recruiters at DOE were offering inspectorships to any volunteer who owned a car.

These are the people who will count up all the used and unused ballots, pack them into a variety of plastic bags, and seal them into a large red box, which DOE officials or Sheriff’s deputies will take away for processing.

The possibilities for chaos are infinite. And chaos provides an excellent camouflage for shady practices. In a process this complex, who’s to know whether anomalies are dishonest or just plain odd?

But even in the midst of chaos, there’s safety in numbers – the numbers of people who have organized SF Fairvote to watch the polls (fairvotemarch2002@yahoo.com; 415 BALLOTS), the numbers of people who will turn out to vote in spite of the predictions of chaos.

Force them to make the system work! Vote!