My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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did my vote count?

A month ago, I called the county registrar to make certain that I could vote in the democratic primary and confirm that I would get my absentee ballot. I couldn’t remember if I was registered democratic, independent, or green. The woman at the other end of the line told me that all was fine and that I was in the system, no worries. I took this to mean that I was registered democratic because I didn’t know at that point that independents could vote in the primary. I got my absentee ballot in the mail a few weeks later. The ballot said that it was a democratic ballot, but the pamphlet said that if you’re an independent, you have to fill in the #6 dot as well. I was uber confused by this. What would happen if I was registered democrat and filled in the #6 spot? Since I was pretty sure that I was registered democratic based on my conversation with the registrar, I decided not to fill in that extra bubble and moved straight to #9.

As election day panned out, I started hearing about “double bubble trouble” as independent voters were being given democratic ballots but not being told about the extra bubble. Worse, the silly punch machines in the democratic zone at the polling places didn’t have a section for punching that out. Midway through the day, I found out that a friend of mine didn’t vote because the absentee ballot that they sent him didn’t have a democratic section even though he’d wanted this. Then I started hearing about precincts running out of democratic ballots. And pollsters giving people the wrong ballot and not letting them void it for the right one. And on and on and on with the various chaos. So I started wondering: did I do it right? Did my vote count? (I kept the stub but I can’t figure out how to confirm whether or not my vote did count. Anyone know?)

It seems as though the problem that I was hearing was bigger than I imagined. Courage Campaign is reporting that 94,000 independent (“decline-to-state”) voters in LA are having their ballots rejected because of this problem. The registrar in charge of LA County is refusing to check these ballots by hand, thereby invalidating the intent of those voters. As a LA resident who isn’t sure if her vote counted, I’m pretty bloody peeved about this. I’m glad that the LA Sups ordered an investigation, but it seems like this should be obvious and not require external demands.

As I started fishing around to find out more information, I found something alarming. The San Francisco Chronicle originally reported that the Clinton campaign “is mystified by the Election Day complaints from the Obama team, since the rules for decline to state voters – specifically the requirement that request Democratic ballots – have been a matter of public record posted on the California Secretary of State’s web site for months.” (These quotes from the Clinton campaign were removed and the article’s title altered in the version updated 7 hours later.) I hope to god that the Chronicle’s article was changed because they inaccurately quoted the Clinton campaign.

As much as I’m a big fan of Obama, I’m a bigger fan of democracy. I believe that every vote counts, even those that disagree with me. I’m pretty annoyed that my registrar is telling reporters that voters were educated on this. I’m a very educated person who is obsessive about her right to vote and I didn’t understand the bloody ballot. As an average citizen, I don’t care that this requirement was on the website for months. And I sure as hell didn’t look to either candidate for instructions on how to fill in the ballot. Voting instructions should be clear in the instructions that I’m given. And it wasn’t. The ballot didn’t tell me what I was registered. No one at the polling place told me what I was registered. All I knew was that I had a democratic ballot, thought I was registered democratic, and voted for #9. Oh, and I did it in blue pen because I did see the instruction that only black or blue pen would count.

Please please tell me that our democracy is not so broke that people’s votes aren’t being counted in this primary. I mean, if Courage Campaign is right and 94,000 votes in LA weren’t counted, I’m scared. Then again, Chicago voters were told that broken pens have invisible ink. At least LA didn’t stoop that low.

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12 comments to did my vote count?

  • joe

    Hi danah, feel free, if you have time, to come out to a panel I’m on tomorrow with the LA County RoV at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel and ask Dean Logan yourself. He’s a very nice, hard-working guy who is busting his and his staffs’ asses this year to run three elections in the largest election jurisdiction in our country.

    To answer some of your questions: The sample ballot you receive should specify what party you’re registered as affiliated as. Also, all sample ballots are available on your local election officials websites a month or two before each election so that you can familiarize yourself to the ballot. (Note that June’s primary ballot will be much much more complicated.) Also, the poll book at the polling place (as well as the copies of the street index outside and posted inside the precinct) will indicate your party affiliation as well as residence address.

    I can see both points of view on this… in order to count these ballots, the RoV’s staff (which hasn’t had a single day off for 6 weeks and won’t be able to take a day off for at least 4-5 more weeks) will have to examine all of LA County’s ballots (in the millions) to check each ballot for these kind of features. Even then, it will be hard to tell a ballot where someone made this kind of error from one that did not have this kind of error. Plus, the RoV’s staff is working quite literally 24-7 to be able to certify the vote count by the state-mandated 28 day deadline.

    Every election is a learning experience for voters, election officials and researchers like me. No election has ever been perfect and all we can do is try to get them to approach perfection. We get close, often. One thing is for sure, if someone doesn’t vote, something has failed… either we’ve failed, they’ve failed, the technology has failed or the voting system has failed.

    We need everyone’s cooperation to pull this year off… frankly, I was surprised the whole world didn’t implode on Tuesday.

  • Well technically, the primary process can’t be considered part of our formal democracy. It’s just the internal machinations by which the two major political parties pick candidates.

  • I did a blog post on this Monday night, because my husband’s absentee ballot was so confusing. We also received all of the election materials and booklets and it was absolutely not clear. I, like you, am obsessive about these things, and I’m also distrustful of absentee ballots. No reason, just my little OCD need to be in the booth actually filling it in on voting day.

    As I look at the vote spread in California, it seems skewed far more than expected and seemed that way as I was watching the real-time counts come in. Since those independent voters were likely to vote for Obama, I’m wondering how many have been disenfranchised.

    And in other news, we have New Mexico’s officials holding three ballot boxes overnight instead of submitting them for counting the night of the election with no notice or accountability to anyone.

    How fucking hard is it to supply a ballot and count it when the voter is done? After well over 200 years, you’d think we’d have this much right.

  • anonymous

    The one casting the vote has no power. The one counting the vote has all the power. — Josef Stalin

  • As one of your former colonial masters (sorry about that, please accept our belated apologies), something I’ve never understood about the American political system is – why don’t you guys just vote?
    I’ve never understood the need to be registered to a particular party (I understand about independents). I’m not suggesting that people cannot be members of political parties, but the whole register-to-vote thing is surely anti-democratic (small d) and drives down participation rates?

  • Danah, I’m not an expert on California election law but most states allow registrars to disclose electronic voter data. You can probably get the list of registered voters from the registrar on a CD in delimited text format and then import it into an SQL database, to search your recent voter history, or anyone else’s. A voter history file is typically a simple database table that has one row for each voter and multiple columns for demographic information and a column for each election showing a true/false value for whether that person voted.

    I recommend that you contact the registrar’s office and ask to speak with the staff that handle voter data requests. These people are typically database administrators. Tell the DBA about your concerns and questions and ask them if their data will be able to confirm whether you voted or not and whether your ballot was counted.

    Chances are that you will have to wait until the 28 day certification period is complete. The data may not give you the whole story. The voter history column may count your ballot as received; say that you “voted” but not indicate whether your ballot was “counted”. The registrar DBA should be able to explain their methodology for how their history data is reported.

    Finally, if you obtain a complete LA voter file with voter history columns, you can run a count query on the 2008 primary column and compare that number to the results that the county is reporting. If their is a difference between the number of people that the voter file says have voted and the number of ballots counted in the official “results,” then the registrar has some splainin to do.

  • rjh

    AJ Cann,

    In the UK the system is still more like the US system was 50+ years ago. The UK still has a party convention where all these issues like “who is the PM candidate” and “what are party platforms” get decided. The US is midway through a reform process of breaking open the closed party convention using the primaries. The rules on membership, etc. derive from that. Some states have no problem with allowing Republicans to vote on selecting Democratic policies and candidates. Other states think that this should be restricted. It depends on the state level decision makers. There is no consensus yet on what is the best balance between party insider power and public participation.

    The UK and US still have general elections where everyone just votes. That’s not for another 9 months.

  • hi danah, sorry to hear you had so much trouble voting. i went to the booth because i was worried my absentee ballot wouldn’t count for the democratic primary…well, that and the fact that my wife and i both didn’t see the part where we could participate in the democratic primary. the simple fact that there was no democratic primary options on the independent ballot is indication enough for me that they fully intended to disenfranchise those individuals.

    @ albert, just fyi, we californians were voting on state measures as well, so it was a part of the democratic process, at least to some extent. *perhaps* not so far as the upcoming presidential election is concerned…

    that all being said, i’m pretty sure the entire system is designed to be confusing so that there is a reason to throw out votes. this is a development/evolution of the ‘southern strategy’ and was amazingly affective in florida during the 2000 elections, as you may recall. here’s the wiki link for your convenience: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Southern_strategy

    democracy now! had a bit of coverage on super tuesday and the conversation did eventually turn to disenfranchisement. here’s the link to that discussion. http://www.democracynow.org/shows/2008/2/6
    since you may be short on time, about 2/3 of the way through is when they touched up on the southern strategy and disenfranchisement.

    it’s a little shameful that we haven’t modernized our electoral system.
    the comments from “joe” that the information is on the internet really reflect the lack of motivation on our political system’s guardians, the bureaucrats such as joe as well as the actual policy makers in washington (and sacramento), to fix a system that is *obviously* flawed.

    for example, how does information on a website help someone who doesn’t have internet access? how does someone even know about it? the day to day demands on each of us to process information is already huge. where’s the time suppose to come from? we’re already tied to a wage slavery system, our education system perpetuates mediocrity as ‘good enough’, and we have to deal with politicians manipulating our desires by tapping into big-themed words such as “hope” “change” (obama) or “terrorism” “WMD” (bush in 2004 and mccain et al now).

    the system is flawed and it’s really embarrassing to think that we’re suppose to be some magnificent, developed nation even despite our democratic system hardly being a representation of the people. it’s a representation of a few elites and that’s how they like it. i’m not getting paranoid, conspiracy theory here. it’s just a result of the system’s design.

    that all being said, joe, why should we care that the people counting the ballots won’t have a day off? that’s their job. they shouldn’t get days off when we need them most. it’s like saying, “well, you would have gotten that emergency heart transplant but we gave the surgeons the day off. sorry.” total nonsense. don’t pander to our sense of fairness. PLUS, nobody is pointing out that many of the people in this nation on the lower end of the earning spectrum work 7 days a week 350 days per year (xmas and new years off, maybe). don’t believe me? go down to the local big-box complex where there is bound to be a chilli’s, olive garden, other-standardized-corporate chain and ask the dish washers how many days a week they work…or how many different places they work. most will answer 7 days and two jobs (lunch shift at one location, dinner shift at another, etc).

    peace.

  • Mark

    Sorry to be the voice of dissent here–but you were voting in a primary held by a political party so that members of that party could determine which candidate they wish to select in the national election.

    So…if you’re so educated…and so passionate and so concerned about your vote being counted…

    why don’t you know who you’re affilated with? On some days, you’re a democrat, or maybe a green party or maybe an independent…oh…you just can’t remember.

    If your vote to participate in the DEMOCRATIC party primary was that important to you, you might have put some effort into determining whether you belonged to the party or not. When you got your ballot, you might have called and asked “hey, am I registered Democrat?”

    It’s not the job of the people at the polling station to know your party affiliation. They are just there to make sure you are registered.

    Don’t you think it’s up to YOU to make sure you know what your party affiliation is? You didn’t understand the ballot but didn’t do anything about it until election day?

    And this is somehow ‘the system’s’ fault?

    (fwiw, I’m a registered Democrat who voted for Obama)

  • joe

    @albert: Technically, the primary process is considered part of our formal democracy because the same elections officials that officiate the formal democracy also run the primary elections (which are legally considered “federal elections” when federal races are on them).

    @Karoli: It’s fucking hard. Cowboy up.

    @anonymous: There is no evidence linking that quote to Stalin… it’s considered a myth at this point to attribute it to him.

    @scott gun: you can only get that information under certain circumstances… check this out for more: http://whovoted.net/

    @messels: everyone wants to fix the system during even-numbered years divisible by four… the other years people don’t want to hear about it and certainly don’t want to pay to fix it. We attempted to modernize but Congress screwed that one up with HAVA (a law in 2002) that paid localities to upgrade but then made them do it very fast, before anything worthwhile was developed. In fact, the LA system now was meant to be a temporary system until something better was available on the market. No such device, system or innovation has emerged.

    There are so many unreconcilable tensions in all of this… for example, people want usable ballot designs so things like the LA problem don’t happen. However, they also want elections systems to abide by every arbitrary rule that one of the 6 parties in California decides for their party rules. And we want counts quickly.

    You should care that the people counting the votes don’t get a day off because no one does their best work under those conditions. That’s their job and not a job anyone particularly wants to grow up into. We need to make elections positions placed of pride in our society that are well-paid and for which we expect a lot of (and recognize the importance of their function). This is not low-skilled work… it’s tough and a single error in such a dependent system can mean a disaster.

    Elections happen. They don’t happen perfectly. We try to learn and study them to make them better. People need to recognize the importance of the insane ballet that pulling off an election is… and they need to be willing to pay for a well-run election.

  • 94,500 DTS votes haven’t been counted because they failed to bubble in “dem” … wtf?