Election chaos online

by Dave Kopel

Rocky Mountain News. November 1, 2008

Want electoral chaos? You don't need to wait until Election Day. Just try using the online voter guides from the Rocky Mountain News or The Denver Post. It is commendably civic-minded for the papers to publish these guides, but in practice, they are useless for county and city votes. For the major races and the statewide ballot issues, the Post's online guide is pretty good.

I first tried the Post Web site, which took my address, and then walked me through the candidate races. Each candidate had the opportunity (which most of them used) to provide answers of about three paragraphs to a series of questions. The Post supplied detailed biographical information.

The candidate part of the site was strong, except that after the page for my Colorado House of Representatives race, I was taken to a screen for another House race more than 100 miles away. Also, the Post put me in the wrong district for the RTD board election. And it skipped the three races for county commissioner.

For the statewide ballot questions, the Post provided pro/con arguments for each issue. Unfortunately, for the county ballot questions, there were no pro-con arguments - indeed, the guide supplied nothing more than an identification number, such as "County Ballot Issue 1B." City ballot issues weren't even listed.

The Rocky's Ballot Builder was much worse. While the Post had simply requested my street address, the Rocky demanded that I create a user ID and password. (One benefit of this registration, on the other hand, is that you don't have to complete your ballot in a single sitting, but can keep coming back to it. You can even print your ballot at the end of the process in order to compare how you voted with the results on Election Day.)

After I gave the Rocky what it wanted, including street address and ZIP code, the site still couldn't decide which state House and Senate district I was in. Unhelpfully, the Rocky only allowed me to pick the districts by number. (As if anyone other than campaign staff and families has their state House district number memorized.)

Once I guessed at the state legislative districts, I was provided with nine questions, to which I could answer yes, no or "not relevant to me." Some questions were oversimplified to the point of being pointless. For example, "Do you support embryonic stem cell research?" Personally, I think such research should be legal, but I don't favor government subsidies for it. Does that mean I "support" or "oppose"?

Another question announces that "The Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision established a woman's constitutional right to an abortion, at least in the first three months of pregnancy." This is flat-out wrong. Roe protects an abortion right long after the first trimester.

These nine questions were used to tell me how often candidates shared my views. As if a rational voter would consider it very important whether a state representative candidate favors quick withdrawal from Iraq. Or as if the death penalty (which is not a big topic at the national or state level) is one of the nine most important issues this year.

Then there was the list of the statewide ballot questions. To get any detail on a particular question, you have to click through to another page. That page reproduces the pro-con arguments from the blue book - but the layout is messed up, with line breaks after lines that are only one or three words long.

The ballot-issue pages have a space to identify the proponents and opponents of the various measures. But the Rocky repeatedly says "NA" (not available) for this information, even though the proponents and opponents are very well known - and could have been found by a quick search of the Rocky archives.

For the ballot issues, there is a link to "previous stories." This could be a great resource, except what you get is a very mindless search. For example, on Amendment 50 (increased gambling), you get the search results for every story that has "amendment" and "50" anywhere in the text.

The Rocky did beat the Post by putting one of the county commissioner races on my ballot, although the Rocky apparently did not realize that on my actual ballot, there are three such races.

For judges, the Rocky merely stated whether the Commission on Judicial Performance recommended retention. The Post had provided excepts from the commission's reports on every judge. Because the commission recommends retention for everyone except the worst of the worst, the text of the report is important for voters who want to get rid of judges who are just mediocre or poor.

On county ballot issues, the Rocky beat the Post by at least having a name for an issue (e.g., "Clean energy program"), but there was no other information in the so-called "Full issue profile."

Recommendation: the Post's Web site can be helpful for everything above the city and county level.

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