It was only a couple of days ago when I realized that I did not vote for President in the June 5th, 2012 California Primary. At first glance, it was not a significant problem as both parties had already settled on their nominees. In fact, President Obama ran unopposed on the San Francisco Democratic ballot. When I embarrassingly mentioned this to my wife, she was quick to say that a friend on Facebook had mentioned that the Presidential was hard to find on the ballot and that voters need to look carefully before completing their ballot.
The voting guide was still on my desk so I opened up the sample ballot page (above) and immediately realized how poorly the ballot was designed. The presidential primary (in this case the Democratic party, but placed same way on other party ballots) was in a narrow column on the left side, half-way down the ballot and under paragraphs written in 3 different language (English, Chinese and Spanish). To the right, most of the page was occupied by 4 ballot initiatives with significant amount of text. On the other ballot pages, every race or issue covered at least half the ballot width.
I headed over to the San Francisco Department of elections website and pulled up the June 5th Election Results and quickly noticed major issues with the numbers. That’s when I tweeted:
Did anyone in the media pickup on the awful June 5th SF primary ballot design that resulted in significant undervote in the presidential?— Ohad Ben-Yoseph (@OhadBY) June 11, 2012
Even though it was Sunday night, I sent a tweet out to the Department of Elections:
@sfelections Did you realize that your terrible ballot design caused a significant undervote for the presidential in the June 5th primary?— Ohad Ben-Yoseph (@OhadBY) June 11, 2012
Back to the numbers.
137,374 ballots were cast San Francisco for the June 5th primary. Only 59,715 voted for President (from all parties). For comparison, 128,688 voted for U.S. Senator, a non-competitive race where Diane Feinstein won 79.2% of the vote and no other candidate received more than 2.12% of the vote.
Of the 137,374 votes cast in San Francisco, not surprisingly, 96,478 voted with Democratic Party ballots. This includes identified Democrats and non-identified voters who chose a Democratic ballot. Only 45,669 voted for President. Barack Obama received 44,641 and the remaining 1,028 were write-ins. While uncompetitive, it would be shocking if only 47% of Democratic ballot voters chose to participate in the Presidential choice. Republican voters, who did face a competitive primary over the past year, at least showed interest in finding the Presidential race on their ballot. They did, but even then, only 11,561 of the 15,472 voted for President (75%).
As further proof, look at the four ballot initiatives that were placed on the same page as the Presidential.
Prop 28 (change to term limites): 129,984 votes
Prop 29 (increase cigarette tax): 133,962 votes
Local A (garbage collection): 132,317 votes
Local B (Coit Tower policy): 129,019 votes
All the propositions were within a few thousand votes of each other. Yes, even Local B, a non-binding policy statement managed 129,019 votes.
Why did I spend an evening focused on this issue? There are nationwide efforts to challenge voting. Whether you think it protects us from voting fraud or you believe it simply undermines voting rights, many people around the country will face challenges to vote in the upcoming November 6th General Elections. You only need to go back 12 years to the 2000 campaign to see the impact a small number of ballots can have (I voted absentee ballot in Broward County, Florida in 2000 and saw first hand the impact of bad ballots; I even found chads on my desk months later).
With this in mind and a likelihood of a close Presidential race, we in San Francisco need to make sure innocent and non-malicious mistakes by our Department of Elections don’t end up disenfranchising us on November 6th. I urge the Department of Elections to look at the June 5th ballot, identify and report its mistakes, and work openly with the public to ensure that the November 6th ballot is fair and effective for all voters.
Note: If you came here to see my photography, I’ll be back to posting photos soon. This issue was too important for me to ignore.