Thursday, September 07, 2006

Republicans Whine about Fair Balloting

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about the NH Supreme Court decision ruling unconstitutional the state law that put the previous election's winning party first on the ballot and alphabetizing candidate names. By now, many things have become clear. Primary ballots that were already printed up in alphabetical order will be used, rather than scrambling not only to come up with a new system but to implement it in less than a month's time. And some form of new ballot order rationale will be used for November's general election.

Secretary of State Bill Gardner and various Republicans in the state legislature continue to have hissy fits over the changes called for by the Supreme Court. And the pretexts for these hissy fits continue to appear to mask partisan angst, with Senate Majority Leader Bob Clegg arguing for a special session of the state legislature to deal with the issue (this was after he finished arguing that the ballots shouldn't be changed until 2007, and that it really wasn't any of the Supreme Court's business anyway). Because after they didn't deal with the problem for 40 years, the only fair thing is that Republican legislators should get another chance, don't you think?

From the moment the ruling was handed down, Gardner fussed about implementation as if, as I said earlier, no one ever before had to make a ballot that didn't always have the exact same party listed first. He argued that it would be too difficult to count the votes. Then, he argued that voters would be too stupid to actually vote their intent:
The original ballot called for three columns of party candidates in the general election: Republican, Democrat and independent. A true rotation could confuse voters, Gardner said, because some ballots would have a short list of independent candidates sandwiched between two long columns of Democrats and Republicans.
For someone who was completely blase about studies showing that putting one party consistently first could garner it an extra few percent of the vote, Gardner was suddenly awfully concerned about the possibility of voter confusion.

Having a short column between two long ones could confuse people? Really? That's what he went with? I mean, my goodness, imagine the confusion for voters who got a ballot with a short column followed by two long ones! They might think there were no Democrats or Republicans running at all, and fail to vote for offices that didn't have independent candidates! There might be no governor!

But he did ultimately announce a plan for party rotation on the ballot for the general election.
Gardner proposed that Republicans, Democrats and independent candidates all have an equal chance at appearing in the first column on the ballot. He said representatives of each party would come to his office tomorrow afternoon to draw numbers from a hat that correspond to each of the 24 state Senate districts; each of the three parties or groupings would hold the left column on the ballot in one-third of the Senate districts.
This seems, on the face of it, reasonable. It's also what I immediately thought might make sense back on August 18, so it's interesting it took him this long to get to this point.

Alphabetization remains a problem area, though. Interestingly enough, not only does Gardner continue to have problems with it, it's the area that state Republicans have also been focusing on. Fancy that.

What gets me is that it looks like these Republicans are just making a fuss to show that they have power - their suggestions of why it would be a problem to do anything other than straight A through Z are so ridiculous. They've gone from downplaying the significance of the same party always going first on the ballot:
[Chair of the state Republican party Wayne] Semprini said he doubts that ballot arrangement makes a difference in election results. "New Hampshire voters are way too smart and way too involved to vote based on whose name is first," he said.
To re-reading the Supreme Court's judgment (which had already been clarified once) and suggesting that changing the alphabetical order was a nefarious Democratic plot to confuse voters and wreak havoc, throwing election results into question:

"It's my opinion that if the Supreme Court really meant that you couldn't alphabetize anything, then they would change their website and stop listing the justices in alphabetical order," [Senate Majority Leader Clegg] said. "Can you imagine how ridiculous it would be if we stopped using the alphabet" for ballot purposes because the judges considered it unfair?

On the surface, the alphabetical issue would seem an unlikely one for a partisan fight. But Clegg said he thinks the Democrats want a randomized order because any confusion might help the minority party gain seats. "Anytime somebody makes a mistake, the mistake might benefit them,"he said. "I don't think people should be elected by mistake."

Meanwhile, Gardner has a novel proposal for how to eliminate alphabetizing. Perhaps it's because I'm a Democrat, but my original thought of how you could keep things easy to understand while eliminating strict A to Z order turns out to have been the same as the Democrats proposed:
Paul Twomey, a lawyer acting for state Democrats, had wanted Gardner to choose a letter and continue the alphabet after the one chosen. Under that scenario, if the letter “J’’ were chosen, candidates whose names began with “J” would be listed first followed by candidates with a last name starting with “K” and so forth, ending with candidates whose names started with “I.”
But no. That would be confusing and we know how Gardner and the Republicans hate confusion. Instead, his proposal is soooooo much simpler.
To address alphabetization, Gardner proposed pulling one letter from a hat to determine how to begin the lists of candidates for state representative, the one office that calls for long lists of names on the general-election ballots. For example, if Gardner draws an "H," candidates with last names beginning with "H"would lead the question for state representative across New Hampshire. However, the list would revert to A-Z alphabetizing after H (H-A-B-C-D and so on), instead of following in alphabetical order from H (H-I-J-K etc.), Gardner said. If a district had no candidates whose names began with H, the list would simply run in regular A-Z format, he said.
Now, I don't want to be cruel here, but was he hit over the head really hard anytime recently? Because I can't think of how a reasonable human being could think that it was less confusing to be presented with this:

HABCDEFGIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ

than with this

HIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZABCDEFG

I also have to question Gardner's ability to do the job he's been doing for like 30 years when his initial responses to being asked to change the ballots involved things like this:
The law also requires rotating names in primaries, which Gardner said is done by printing different ballots for different precincts, not by varying ballots within a precinct. If that were required, voting machines, which are used by two-thirds of the state’s voters, would have to be reprogrammed, he said.

“I’m not even sure if the computer software exists to accommodate the number of different ballots this could require,” Gardner said.
Right. No other state ever dealt with the ballot intricacies faced by New Hampshire.

Except, of course, that I could think of a case right off the top of my head, and I haven't been the secretary of state for even one year.

The 2003 California gubernatorial recall election had 133 candidates and, being out of cycle, was put together relatively quickly. And they didn't do things alphabetically.
On the sample ballot, the candidates' names are listed in alphabetical order according to a randomly chosen alphabet (RWQOJMVAHBSGZXNTCIEKUPDYFL). The order of the list rotates from district to district, like a batting order, so as to offset what's called "the primacy effect"—the natural advantage lent to candidates appearing near the top of a list.
Now, I don't advocate that kind of random-ass order; I agree with Slate's perspective on that:
From an information-design perspective, this is insanity. The customary A to Z, like any form of standardization (miles, dollars, pounds) helps us navigate the world. While a random R to L order might be democratically fair to candidates, it makes it harder for voters faced with finding their chosen candidate on a list of 133 names. As almost any designer would tell you, it would be far better simply to rotate through the trusty A to Z from district to district. This would ensure that no one candidate benefited from being at the top of the list and also that no frustrated voter gave up on finding the name she was looking for.
But the point is, Gardner was not facing a unique situation. The things the Supreme Court judgment implied, they've all been done by some voting district somewhere.

So let's recap:

New Hampshire has had a balloting system that was obviously and provably unfair, and this system has continued at the will of the Republican-controlled state legislature.

The state Supreme Court ruled this system unconstitutional.

Democrats said, roughly, "great, let's get to work figuring out a fair system." They have compromised and worked with the secretary of state to allow the primaries to go on and aren't challenging his alphabetization idea.

The secretary of state said it couldn't be done. Then the same guy who'd acknowledged "
that the candidates at the top of the ballot can gain as much as a 6-to-10-point edge in certain races"
decided that the confusion that might possibly result from a short column sandwiched by longer columns was a serious problem. Then when he lost on that, he came up with a totally bizarre and counter-intuitive way of changing alphabetical order.

State Republican leaders said the decision wouldn't change anything. But it shouldn't be carried out this year because it would be difficult. (Not that it has anything to do with this being an election year or anything.) Then they said it wasn't the Supreme Court's business, and that maybe they'd hold the first special session of the legislature since 1954. In fact, maybe it would be unconstitutional not to hold a special session. And also that the Supreme Court had implied that aphabetization has no place anywhere in American society (and that's just ridiculous, so clearly the whole decision is ridiculous!).

What I'm smelling is not alphabetical, but neither is it too confusing for my feeble voter's brain:

It's called desperation.

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