‘Spoiled Ballots’ Subvert Will of Voters in Special Election

Sitting in what we affectionately call the “bat cave,” watching returns come in from the special election for San Jose’s District 4 council seat, Steve Kline noted there was something wrong. “There are too many spoiled ballots, “ he said.

Kline, our numbers guy, was noting the difference between votes cast and votes counted. In a small turnout, spoiled ballots can make a huge difference. Fortunately, it did not affect our candidate in the race: Tim Orozco.

But it did hurt Lan Diep, who should be Orozco’s opponent in the runoff, not Manh Nguyen. It is an anomaly that falls in line with the “butterfly” ballots cast in Florida for Pat Buchanan, back in 2000. The spoiled ballots cost Diep, who finished just 13 votes behind Nguyen.

This is every candidate and campaign consultant’s nightmare. An election lost not because the votes were lacking, but because of the way votes were counted. The write-in portion of the ballot was left blank on a substantial number of ballots. Diep told his supporters to mark the last spot on the ballot—where he thought his name would be listed. Some voters clearly made a mistake by instead selecting the write-in choice.

The damage is done. There is no recourse and the courts would never interfere, regardless of voters’ intent. Nguyen moves on to the June election.

But we can remedy this problem in the future. Internet voting would help. If a voter had marked a place on the ballot that signified nobody, a warning could be given before the vote was cast. “Are you sure you don’t want to vote for anybody?” But today’s system, especially paper ballots that are mailed, don’t allow for that kind of assistance.

There is potential for mistakes in any voting system. Experienced political operatives take precautions but nothing is full proof. To lose an election by 13 votes is excruciatingly painful. A candidate who loses and knows he should have won is inconsolable.

So, credit is due to Lan Diep. We move on with Orozco and Nguyen, in a runoff expected to have very low voter turnout. Let’s hope the winner is the definitive choice of voters.

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