‘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.

Rich Robinson is an attorney and political consultant in Silicon Valley. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of San Jose Inside.


  1. Instead of telling voters to mark the last spot on the ballot, he could have just told them to mark the spot next to his name. Seems like common sense. This isn’t an issue with the voting process so much as foolish instructions from a candidate.

  2. The real spoiled ballots were the ones the RoV sent out mistakenly listing Manh Nguyen as having taken the voluntary spending limit. How many votes would Nguyen have gotten had the Clerk not sent an individual letter to every voter in D4 telling them that he didn’t taken the spending limit?

  3. Stupid people!

    They just can’t seem to get this voting business right.

    Why not just set up a system where political consultants and campaigns can collect permanent signed proxy votes from the voters.

    That way, lazy voters don’t have to remember to go to the polls, and Rich Robinson can show up at the Registrar of Voters with a fistful of proxies in hand and decide who his clients want to win.

    This would probably be useful in the presidential election as well.

    We can cancel the 2016 election, and avoid wasting $5 billion on pointless campaigning by simply accepting the CNN poll that shows Hillary is way ahead, and just declare her the winner now.

    We’ve made “democracy” a lot more complicated than it really needs to be.

    • “We’ve made “democracy” a lot more complicated than it really needs to be.” Yeah, Bubble Boy, let’s dumb it down like we have with our public education system and TV sitcoms. Lan Diep probably told his supporters to mark the last spot on the ballot because he knew they couldn’t read the names but they could remember “last.”

  4. Wait, wouldn’t an Internet ballot also allow for write-ins in the last spot on an electronic form? How would Internet voting have helped?

    • Paper ballots are the least likely to lead to election fraud. Every electronic ballot can be compromised. As we’ve seen, Obama got 106% of the possible votes in some precincts. In others, Romney got ZERO votes cast. That is statistically preposterous.

      There are no credible excuses for converting to anything electronic. Paper ballots are the most honest by far. And what is more important than that?

  5. “Experienced political operatives take precautions but nothing is full proof.” Yup, like Spell Check, eh Rich?

  6. If I don’t like any candidates, I will either submit the ballot with no selections, or select the blank space. I think there should be a line that says “no candidate is worth voting for”

  7. Reminds me of the hanging/dimpled/pregnant/whatever chad problem in Florida during the November 2000 presidential election. Good thing this SJ city council election won’t be contested thru the California and US supreme courts.

    The real problem is that city council seats can be decided by a very small number of votes, because the turnout in the mid-term election cycles are so small. And they are even smaller in special elections. Perhaps if the candidates actually walked, talked & LISTENED TO a lot (at least 50%) of voters in their districts, there might be more interest from voters. Candidate ‘forums’ and lawn signs only go so far.

  8. Remember Rich approved of Pres. Obama’s mandatory voting idea. But if any resisters fail to mark their ballots so votes actually register, they can be marched straight to a paddywagon outside the polling place. Jail shouldn’t be too crowded on a Tuesday night.

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