How to cheat on next year’s Best of Reno ballot

And other lessons learned in 2003

This year, the Reno News & Review received more than 960 ballots in its Best of Northern Nevada readers’ poll. We kicked out some 341 for ballot-box stuffing. I say “more than 960,” rather than giving a precise number, because there were some that didn’t meet the minimum standards for further examination.

It was pretty hard to reach this bottom standard. Basically, to reach the nadir of stupidity, a person had to forget to put a name, address and phone number on the ballot.

Some 401 of our ballots came in via our Web site. We eliminated most online cheating by requiring validated e-mail addresses, and we parsed out matching IP addresses if the submissions arrived within seconds of each other. Since we had more than 100 categories, ballots that replied on four or fewer categories were parsed out.

Surprisingly, I guess, most of the ballot-box stuffing came from businesses. I’m a little surprised that our award is so coveted that people would throw away their reputations in order to try to steal the win. Still, after much soul-searching, I’ve decided I can’t name the businesses that tried to cheat because I can’t prove anything. Judging from the lack of guile, I can’t even say without hesitation that some of these apparent cheaters weren’t actually their competitors trying to get the hot competition kicked out of the contest.

Determining what qualified as cheating was up to me. I don’t mean to resurrect bad memories, but this was analogous to determining whether a chad was loose or hanging.

My philosophy was pretty simple—anything that encouraged participation was OK, as long as that participation didn’t disenfranchise other voters. For example, businesses and people could campaign to win in their categories (see A&C), but they couldn’t fill out a bunch of ballots in their own favor and turn them in.

I don’t think anybody would disagree that it is acceptable for a business or person to hand out and collect Reno News & Review Best of Northern Nevada ballots. That’s how these types of popularity contests work. Unfortunately, quite a few tried to tip the balance unfairly in their own favor.

One business turned in dozens of ballots—almost all filled out by the same hand. They of course had different names on the bottom and were filled out in different colors of ink, but when a person looks at hundreds of ballots, this sort of cheating sticks out like a venereal wart. A variant on this were the ballots that had a few categories filled in with one color of ink, while the rest of the ballot appeared to be legitimately filled out.

Then there was the business that encouraged people—employees, I suppose—to fill the business’s name in all categories; if these ballots had been left in, we would have had a bar winning best spiritual leader, best church, best coach, best athlete and best poet—among others. It appears that a macho-type business may have voted for a competing business as best gay hangout.

If a significant number of ballots were determined to be cheaters in a batch that was turned in at the same time, the entire pile was thrown out. Assuming the business is, in fact, the best in the category, the removal of the batch would not affect the business’s overall ability to win. This logic was shown to be accurate by the business that tried to get its competitor elected best gay hangout. It still legitimately won its category, even though two separate batches of illegitimate ballots hit the trash can. Not to be punitive, but next year we might have the category, “Best place for a visit by the Washoe County Health Department.”

Due to the amount of attempted cheating, next year we’re considering accepting only ballots that are filled out online, dropped off one or two at a time by hand or delivered in a postmarked envelope, no more than two ballots per envelope.

Other lessons learned
People want to be helpful. When you ask them, “What is the best elementary school in town?” they are going to attempt to answer you. Trouble is, few people have ever had children in more than one or two elementary schools. So they will either vote for the school they’ve heard is the best elementary school or out of pride they will answer their own elementary school. It’s human nature.

So what happens if you ask someone the best place to get a tattoo or piercing? What percentage of our readers have gotten a tattoo in every tattoo parlor in town? Readers are going to name the highest profile or most-talked-about tattoo parlor in town, right?

This desire to help is also seen in the categories where there are a huge number of nominees but very few votes for individual nominees. For example, more than three dozen “best spiritual leaders” were nominated, but none got more than a dozen votes. I hate to say it, but when a dozen people out of hundreds voting choose the best spiritual leader, I don’t think the result is very relevant. It’s kind of like that California recall thing.

Next year, we may suggest people not vote in every category.

And finally
I’ve already figured out a way to cheat next year. When the Best of Reno ballot appears in the Reno Gazette-Journal next year about this time, empty out every newspaper box you can find, take the ballots down to your favorite bar, and fill in the winners from our own Reno News & Review Best of Northern Nevada issue. Personally, I’d think that would be pretty funny. And then you can make up funny names Jack Meoff, I.P. Freely or Oliver Klozoff.