Los Angeles County is moving to overhaul the way millions of residents vote by replacing the antiquated, ink-based balloting system with modern touch-screen machines.
Officials said the touch-screen system would be easier for voters to navigate and reduce the risk of errors in filling out and counting ballots. They hope to avoid the sometimes serious pitfalls other counties have run into while transitioning to new voting systems.
Elections officials — who serve about 4.8 million registered voters scattered across 5,000 precincts — began planning for a new voting system five years ago.
The county's current system is known as InkaVote, and it requires voters to mark a paper ballot with their selections.
Justin Levitt, a Loyola Law School professor and election law expert who sat on an advisory committee for the new voting system, said the county's current system "works OK, sort of, most of the time, but with some difficulty," particularly for voters with disabilities and those who require ballots in languages other than English.
"It's not that it doesn't work, it's not that it breaks, but it strains," Levitt said. "The county's only getting bigger and more diverse and more complex."
The Board of Supervisors took a big step toward the new system Tuesday by approving a $15-million contract with a Palo Alto consultant to design the new system.
Under the new system, projected to fully roll out in 2020, voters would make their selections using a touch screen, and the voting machine would then print a paper ballot to be tallied.
"The project is really about modernizing the voting experience in a way that reflects the diversity of our county," Registrar-Recorder Dean Logan said.
The county's vote-by-mail process would remain the same. But the new system probably would lead to expanded options for in-person voting and even extend the window of time for voting to perhaps a couple of weeks before the election.
New voting systems are often fraught with problems. Many California counties that switched to electronic voting nearly a decade ago had to scrap their systems after Secretary of State Debra Bowen set new, strict limits on their use, citing security issues.
The state now does not allow purely electronic systems that don't generate a paper trail that can be audited.
Los Angeles County, at the time, had not made the switch because election officials had been unable to find a system that met the needs of the diverse and sprawling county.
The new system will be unusual in that the county — not a vendor — will own the computer code used to operate it. If the system is successful in L.A., the code could be shared with other local governments.
County elections officials said the voting system would appear on a small scale in 2018. The system will have to first be certified by the California secretary of state.
David Wagner, a UC Berkeley professor of computer science who served as an unpaid technical advisor to the county, said a staged rollout is wise to avoid a debacle like the rollout of Healthcare.gov.
"Some big software projects fail," Wagner said. "There's no silver bullet. But typical best practices are to test the system before rollout and pilot it on a small scale."
Eric C. Bauman, chairman of the Los Angeles County Democratic Party who also sat on the advisory committee, said he thought the registrar's team was approaching the project carefully.
"These big voting systems, they're always potentially problematic and buggy, especially when you have millions of people voting," Bauman said. "But this has been a thorough and comprehensive process."
The contract with Palo Alto-based Ideo, which the supervisors approved unanimously, was issued without competitive bidding. Logan said that was because Ideo had been involved in the early stages of gathering ideas for the concept and because of the company's "human-centered" design approach.
The contract to manufacture the new voting equipment will be competitively bid and Ideo will not be eligible, Logan said.
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