The election was for Democratic State Committeewoman in the Middlesex, Suffolk & Essex state senate district. Every presidential primary year, a man and a woman are elected to the state committee in each of Massachusetts’ 40 senate districts, running on the same ballot as the candidates for president, and Democratic town and ward committees. In 2004, the female seat in the MSE district was open, and Lesley Phillips, a founding member of Progressive Democrats of Cambridge (and now chair of the Cambridge ward 6 committee) decided to run as a write-in. I was active in MassForDean, and she was one of a number of candidates for Democratic committee seats around the state that we endorsed in the March primary.
The MSE comprises parts of Allston-Brighton, Cambridge, Somerville, Revere, Saugus, and all of Everett and Chelsea – it’s the district currently held by Senator Jarrett Barrios. As it turns out, there was another write-in candidate. Patty Cheever campaigned only in Everett and Chelsea, while Lesley Phillips campaigned mostly in Cambridge, Somerville, and Allston-Brighton.
The day after the election, we got the write-in results from most of the district, and Phillips was several votes behind Cheever. In Cambridge, we saw a few votes for Lesley Phillips for State Committeeman (rather than State Committeewoman, the office she was actually running for), and a few votes for variations on her name. Although Boston had not yet reported the write-in numbers for their portion of the district, we decided not to wait, and asked Cambridge for a recount of the ward in question.
On the appointed day, I walked into the Cambridge Elections Commission, volunteering as a recount observer for Lesley Phillips’ campaign. The city’s volunteer vote counters sat in pairs at a long table, each pair with a stack of ballots for one of the precincts. Our job was simple to observe the ballots as they flipped through them, hear which ones they were recording as votes for Lesley, and call a stop if we thought they missed one. We had been briefed on what to look for: a certain number of ballots with Lesley’s name in the “Committeeman” spot, a few variations of her name, and a few which had been reported as unreadable, but might on further inspection look like her name.
It turns out that some of the votes we thought Lesley would gain, had been added to her total in the original count. Still, we gained one here and there… and then we got to “Louise Phillips“.
Two ballots had that name clearly written on them. We knew that nobody with that name was running for the seat, and we’d also looked in the Cambridge phone book and could find no Louise Phillips. Clearly, these were voters who intended to vote for Lesley Phillips but misremembered her name, right?
We made our case, and the judges conferred… they seemed to be convinced. Then one of them said, “hold on a minute, let me look at something!” She left the room, and came back a few minutes later. Yup, she’d just remembered and checked: There was a poll worker at that precinct named Louise Phillips. With a credible possibility that these two write-ins were from friends of the poll worker, they voted unanimously against counting the two votes for Lesley Philips.
They made the correct decision. And yet, minutes earlier, they were ready to make the opposite decision, and it would’ve been correct, if they hadn’t known there was a Louise Phillips at that polling place. We on Lesley’s campaign genuinely believed those two votes were votes for Lesley at the start, and our reasoning was solid in light of what we knew. The might in fact really have been votes for Lesley Phillips, despite Louise’s presence – we don’t know. Sometimes, judging ballots is a fuzzy business.
Postscript: We gained enough votes in that recount to end up 1 vote short, until Cambridge turned up a simple error in another ward that netted us 1 more vote, for a tie. We waited for Boston to report their results… and got a spoiled election where the candidate who got fewer votes ended up in office. But that is another story…