No Small Stuff (cont.): Bleed-Through Means New Mexico Swaps Sharpies for Flairs

Sharpie.jpg

[Image courtesy of wikimedia]

UPDATE: A reader writes to guess that the vendor in question is Dominion, based on the company’s recommendation of Sharpies for other clients … and is correct!

With just 11 days until Election Day, many jurisdictions are reaching the point in the election cycle where the saying “in elections, there is no such thing as small stuff” is taking hold with a vengeance. The latest example is New Mexico, where some voters’ concerns about spoiling their ballots has led Secretary of State Dianna Duran to recall thousands of Sharpie pens at the polls. The Santa Fe New Mexican has the story:

The first casualty of New Mexico’s election was not a Republican, a Democrat or even a member of the Green Party.

It was the Sharpie, a pen mightier than the state’s paper ballots.

All 33 county clerks were to remove Sharpie pens from voting sites Thursday at the direction of Secretary of State Dianna Duran.

It was a turnabout for Duran, whose staff initially said Sharpies were the preferred pen for marking ballots. The vendor who supplied the state’s voting machines had recommended Sharpies because they would help provide accurate readings when ballots are scanned.
But ink from the Sharpies leaked from the front side of the ballot to the back, worrying any number of voters.

“My concern is that these bleed-throughs will be used to invalidate my ballot and, possibly, many other early voters’ ballots,” David M. Cook Jr. wrote to Duran and others after he voted in Santa Fe County.

So Duran, a Republican who is seeking re-election this fall, decided that Sharpies would be replaced by Papermate Flair pens.

The change will cost state taxpayers $17,296, according to Duran’s staff.

Ken Ortiz, a spokesman for Duran, said in an interview that the change was not made because of any deficiency or accuracy problems with Sharpies. Rather, the reasons for shifting to Flairs were “to improve the voting experience” and because of public perception that Sharpies might be fouling ballots with excessive ink.

Duran’s staff has supplied 839 boxes of Flair pens to early voting sites throughout New Mexico. Another 839 boxes will be distributed at polling places for Election Day, Nov. 4, Ortiz said.

At first blush, this story has the feeling of “oh, those wacky election officials and their madcap adventures” – a genre that we see all too often in the last few weeks of a campaign as political reporters used to covering campaigns suddenly discover election administration – but there’s actually an important lesson here.

Specifically, New Mexico election officials were caught between the recommendation of a vendor who wants to minimize unreadable ballots (and, presumably, limit its own exposure to claims that the ballots were defective) and the concerns of voters that too much of a good thing (in this case, black Sharpie ink) could actually invalidate their ballots.

Fortunately, the cost of that lesson is relatively small – even with tight budgets, $17,300 statewide is not a huge sum, and it’s not like Sharpies can’t be used for other purposes – but still it’s a helpful reminder to election officials that everything in the voting experience, right down to the pens that people use, can be significant and ought to be tested if possible.

It doesn’t help, of course, that New Mexico’s Secretary of State race is contentious and competitive – Bernalillo County’s Maggie Toulouse Oliver is challenging Duran – but I hope the newspaper is wrong when it suggests that “the Sharpie recall could yet be a campaign issue.” The candidates have tangled over a wide range of big issues – including the proper balance of power between state and county election officials – that are (at least in my opinion) far more interesting and important than the choice of ink pen at the polls.

In other words, while there is no such thing as small stuff in election administration, there’s no reason why every little thing has to be a big deal on the campaign trail.

Stay tuned.

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