Procedural miscues overshadow voter intent

Here we go again — another election that doesn’t provide closure, but acts as the starting point for months of legal wrangling. In the ring this time are Donna Frye, the maverick San Diego city councilwoman who launched a surprisingly successful write-in campaign for mayor, and incumbent Republican Dick Murphy.

Especially in the last four years, American elections have become less about the will of the people and more about legal challenges. Uncontested elections are becoming oddities. At the root of the problem are voters who can’t seem to muster the attention to detail it takes to cast a ballot that follows all the rules and is impervious to disqualification.

In this mayoral race, more than 5,000 voters — a margin large enough to give Frye a victory over Murphy — wrote in her name for mayor, but failed to fill in the corresponding bubble. Registrar of Voters Sally McPherson refused to count those ballots, saying the bubbling that some voters neglected “is required by state law.”

Hopefully those 5,000 voters have learned their lesson and will follow directions more carefully next time. But what’s more important, the letter of the law, or voter intent? And can legal challenges to the official election results, which declared Murphy the winner, succeed?

As lawsuits continue to mount, Murphy has made a hobby of championing an untenable position in regards to voter intent. A Dec. 15 San Diego Union-Tribune article reports that “[Murphy] is not convinced that voters who wrote Frye’s name but did not fill in the bubble intended to vote for her.” So voters took the time to go to the polls and write in Donna Frye’s name because — they didn’t support her for mayor? There are better ways to show your disapproval of a candidate, such as voting for someone else.

Murphy said in the same Union-Tribune article, “I’m not sure we’ll ever know what the intent of those voters were.” For the sake of honesty, he should have said, “I sure hope we never know what the intent of those voters was,” because it’s obvious the thousands of people who wrote in “Donna Frye” as their choice for mayor supported Frye. Frye herself doesn’t mince words: In a Dec. 31 Union-Tribune article she said, “If voters actually took the time to write in someone’s name, it’s real clear what they intended to do.”

In any case, this mindless debate over voter intent has been trumped by endless wrangling over the law — the law that was originally used to throw out thousands of Frye ballots, giving Murphy a thin margin over his Democratic challenger. On Dec. 31, two formal challenges to the results of the race were filed, both calling for Frye to be declared the winner. One suit calls upon the City Council to excercise its right to “judge” the election, which is delineated in the city charter; the other suit contends that San Diego’s election rules — which do not specifically require bubbling — take precedence over the rules of the State Legislature because San Diego is a charter city.

It’s tough to judge whether these legal objections will succeed — while Murphy’s camp dismisses them, their proponents talk up their chances for success. Frye says she has “no plans” to file her own challenge by the deadline of Jan. 7, so the success or failure of her campaign hinges on the various challenges already filed on her behalf.

Meanwhile, the Union-Tribune, which along with other media organizations funded the count of the unbubbled ballots, is unequivocal: “More people cast ballots for Frye than for Murphy in the Nov. 2 election.” It’s a sad day when a procedural technicality negates the intent of voters. Insofar as elections are supposed to express the will of the people, this election has failed.

Further, with Murphy as the certified winner of the election, Frye and her camp are cast as challengers to election results. And if precedence is any indication, overturning election results is nearly impossible, even if voters are clearly on the challenger’s side — and what politician wants to be labeled a sore loser when they mount challenges, a la Al Gore in 2000?

Despite all the postelection ugliness, this election isn’t without its positive aspects. Frye’s candidacy was dazzling. As a Democratic environmentalist in the Republican stronghold of San Diego, Frye launched a write-in campaign a mere five weeks before the election — and won more votes than either of her Republican challengers.

Obviously, the Republican vote was split between Ron Roberts and Dick Murphy, who were voted onto the ballot during the primaries. But after championing the core idea of open government during her campaign, Frye’s success shows that a significant segment of San Diego’s electorate wants an entirely new mode of city politics, radically different from the same old Republican control that’s come to characterize San Diego.

Frye sought to change the face of San Diego politics. In a way she already has, as an unconventional city councilwoman known for owning a surf shop and championing the cause of clean water. Regardless of whether the legal challenges filed on her behalf succeed, her candidacy alone helped her, by making her and her ideas better known among voters. Moreover, the relative success of her campaign shows that San Diego voters are fed up with the status quo and want to see some radical changes in city politics. Dick Murphy, take note.