Marin IJ

Ross Valley vote gets even messier

Staff Report
Marin Independent Journal
Article Launched:07/24/2007 11:05:59 PM PDT

WE KEEP learning things about the Ross Valley flood fee vote.

First, we learned that it passed - barely - by 65 votes out of more than 8,000 ballots returned by property owners.

Then, we learned that 1,700 of those ballots were disqualified - almost all because they were not signed as required. That was more than 20 percent of ballots cast.

Then, we learned that in a typical Marin election about 1 percent of ballots are disqualified.

Then, we learned elections officials could not count the disqualified ballots to find out if they would have changed the result. That's the law, we learned.

Then, we learned county supervisors had no choice but to certify the results because election officials had to disqualify all those ballots.

Then, we learned that if all the disqualified ballots had been valid, the fee - which will raise $40 million over 20 years - would have failed by 141 votes. Unofficially.

We also learned on Monday that Supervisor Hal Brown, the driving force behind efforts to solve the chronic flooding problems in the Ross Valley, would not do anything differently if he had the chance to hold the election again. "We followed the rules," he said.

We have learned a great deal - but some of us haven't learned enough.

We need to thank attorney Ford Greene of San Anselmo for paying $545 for a recount of those Ross Valley votes. He put his money where his mouth is. And followed election rules.

Greene had no interest in recounting the valid ballots. He wanted access to the ones that were disqualified. He didn't find out who the voters were - a secret ballot is a key part of our democratic process, after all - but he was told how they voted.

And that is how we learned that the Ross Valley flood fee would have failed if those additional 1,678 ballots had been counted.

We were not surprised to learn that Greene may take the county to court over the election. He will consult with the Marin United Taxpayers Association, which also has expressed dismay over how the voting was conducted.

Greene, who is not adverse to hyperbole, says the unusual format - voters had to sign their ballot for it to be valid, unlike most secret ballot elections - is "evidence of a deliberate scheme to disenfranchise hundreds of voters as part of an end-run around Proposition 13."

"This dead rat stinks," Greene declared Monday. He vowed a Florida-style debacle won't happen in his county.

We agree with Greene that the election format was designed to avoid a property-tax election that would have required approval by two-thirds of voters. That is obvious. We also agree that the ballot design was far from perfect. Too many voters were confused about the need to sign their ballot for it to be counted. That is the opposite of how most people have voted in the past. Those instructions were on the back of the ballot, but should have been more obvious, as Greene pointed out.

We disagree with Greene that this was a scheme to disenfranchise voters to get the much-needed flood fee approved. That was the unfortunate result, but we don't believe that was the intent. After all, the disqualified ballots just as easily could have gone the other way. Of those 1,678 ballots, 56 percent voted against the flood fee.

What Greene's recount did is highlight how closely divided the Ross Valley was over the flood fee. The extraordinarily close election could have gone either way. Some would argue it has gone both ways.

We find it encouraging that members of the Marin Election Advisory Committee plan to take a closer look at the voting procedures used. That's a good first step.

The vote was run by the county Public Works Department with the help of a consultant. Elections of this magnitude - 15,000 property owners will be paying for 20 years - should be run by the skilled professionals in the county's Registrar of Voters office. Their role was restricted to confirming the count. That limited role was a mistake.

Some things we do know.

First, the voting process was poorly conceived and executed.

Second, it was a mistake that must not be repeated in Marin.

The courts could win up deciding the fate of this election.

If Marin has to defend the flawed process in court, it will cost the county - and taxpayers - but the integrity of our elections is paramount.

We still have some things to learn.
Hub Law Offices 711 Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, San Anselmo, California 94960-1949 415-258-0360