Butterfly ballot? Absentee form instructions murky

Andrew Devereux, a Charlottesville resident studying in Baltimore, was stunned when he opened the envelope containing his absentee ballot. Even with all eyes on voting practices nationwide in the wake of Florida's catastrophic malfunction during the 2000 presidential election, it seems that Charlottesville may have a confusing ballot of its own.

On October 22, Devereux met fellow Johns Hopkins University graduate student Teresa Cribelli over coffee so that she could witness his signature on his absentee forms. But when they opened the packet, they found two sets of instructions. One set directed him to mark an "X" by his candidate's name, but a second set specifically directed him to completely shade in the box. "The wording is contradictory," he says.

During the height of the 2000 controversy, Devereux was working at the Eisenhower Center for American Studies, an arm of the University of New Orleans dedicated to political research and presidential history. "I've been following this sort of thing very closely over the last four years," he says.

Since neither he nor his witness knew what to make of the directions, he called the ultimate authority on the matter, Charlottesville registrar Sheri Iachetta. She thanked Devereux for his watchdog sensibilities and promised to change the ballot before the next election.

"We've only had one complaint," she says. "I'm not worried about it at all."

Devereux's not so sure. "I called the registrar, who said, 'Oh, are you calling about the boxes?' So obviously they had heard about this before," he recalls.

Either way, Iachetta is quick to laud the equipment's sensitivity and promised that nothing would interfere with the vote. "The scanner will take any mark in the box," says Iachetta. "We've had people send back ballots that are crumpled, and the scanner reads them. As long as it's in the box, it doesn't matter."

According to Iachetta, the ballots in question were sent out to more people than usual this year. "I've sent out 1200 absentee ballots and received almost 1000 back," she says. "That's more than we've ever had."

In this hotly contested election, political enthusiasts of all persuasions are on edge. Allegations of faulty voter registration practices have been heard from left-leaning groups in Ohio and conservative activists in Oregon.

Devereux doesn't find the Charlottesville situation comparable to more egregious situations out west. "Whether there's intent or not, when voters are disenfranchised, it's not a democracy," he says.

So what did Devereux do in the end? "I shaded it in," he says. "I hope that counts." Iachetta assures that it will.