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Blank ballots in referendum remain a mystery  (SC)

Charles Tomlinson  South Carolina Now   03 December 2006

FLORENCE — More than 100 voters cast blank ballots in last month’s Florence School District 1 bond referendum, and Florence County Elections Director Mike Young wants to find out what caused that phenomenon.
“I’d like to know why 108 people would go into a polling place and go through all the trouble of signing in, showing their identification, and going into the voting booth and casting a blank ballot,” Young said.
The blank ballots, called undervotes, are common, but only in elections among candidates, Young said.
“Normally, you’ll have a lot of undervotes,” he said. “It’s only in elections like this when it stands out.”
The referendum failed by 168 votes, so the undervotes wouldn’t have been enough to sway the election if all those who cast blank ballots would have voted in favor of the referendum. Plus, there’s no guarantee that those who cast blank ballots would all have voted “yes” or “no.”
The undervotes count for less than 2 percent of the 6,252 total ballots, but make up about 8 percent of the votes in some precincts.
Those precincts include Tans Bay and Florence Ward 10. Eleven of the 134 ballots cast at Tans Bay were blank. Two of the 25 voters at Florence Ward 10, with its polling place at Williams Middle School, cast blank ballots.
Florence School District 1 Superintendent Larry Jackson said he was unaware of the issue, but added that the district’s board of trustees will determine whether the matter requires a formal inquiry.
The $125 million bond referendum would have been aimed at improving school facilities.
The referendum involved five “split precincts” where some people voted in the referendum while others who live in Florence School District 4, in the Timmonsville area, voted in that district’s board elections.
But a ballot wouldn’t be counted an undervote, Young said, if a voter simply received the wrong ballot style. And only one undervote was cast in Timmonsville’s precincts.
Young said the undervotes seem to have no pattern. For example, two precincts vote at The Byrnes Schools gymnasium in Quinby, and one precinct had a 5 percent rate of undervotes while the other had a 2 percent rate.
Twelve of the 43 precincts involved in the referendum had no undervotes.
Young said he wonders whether the referendum question or the machines themselves might have puzzled voters.
“We want to make sure it’s not anything we did that would confuse the voter,” Young said.
The machines worked properly, Young said, and warn a voter twice if he or she is about to cast a blank ballot.
State law allows county elections commissions to issue an explanation of potentially confusing questions, although the commissions “won’t touch” the questions because the losing side might blame the explanation, Young said.

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