When Los Angeles County set out to build a new voting system from scratch more than a decade ago, election officials knew the challenges in serving an electorate larger than those found in any of 39 states.
But what they didn’t know was that their efforts were on a collision course with a series of statewide election changes and the most consequential presidential primary in modern California history. Should Angelenos not understand what to do or where to go, the effects could be felt both statewide and — in terms of the Democratic presidential race — across the country.
“There’s a lot riding on this,” said Rick Hasen, an election law professor at UC Irvine. “Any time you’re making so many changes at once, people can lose confidence in the system.”
The list of changes is long: L.A. ballots have been fully redesigned; thousands of neighborhood polling places are gone, replaced by fewer regional voting centers; and once there, millions of Angelenos will use new touch-screen devices approved by state officials just weeks ago.
Voters across the county had their first experiences with the new process over the weekend. In some cases, it was not what they had hoped for — sporadic reports about miscues that election officials promised would be resolved as election day approaches.
Dean Logan, the registrar of voters in Los Angeles County and architect of the new $300-million voting system, said in an interview earlier this month that his staff is prepared to address any problems as they arise. “I don’t ever go into an election anticipating that everything is going to go picture-perfect,” he said. “I think doing that would be naive.”
Few counties have modernized their elections less frequently — the new system marks just the third major modernization of voting in Los Angeles since 1968. Local officials stubbornly held on to the “Votomatic” punch-card system for 35 years, scrapping it three years after similar hole-punching machines in Florida sparked the “hanging chads” furor of the 2000 presidential election.
L.A. then switched to the “Ink-a-Vote” system, in which voters marked ballots with a pen, intended to be only a short-term fix while the county prepared to switch to electronic voting machines. But after a storm of criticism over security concerns scuttled that effort, Los Angeles County decided to build its own system from the ground up.
The end result — known as “Voting Solutions for All People,” or VSAP — has been in limited use ahead of the March 3 primary. Though Logan has said those who have used it so far reported a positive experience, a statewide primary in which most of the county’s 5.5 million voters cast ballots could reveal issues not found during earlier tests.
“There’s a learning curve associated with all changes in voting rules,” Hasen said. “I always say, you don’t premiere your brand-new play straight to Broadway.”
Logan, who has led the county’s election team since 2008, said there was no other choice. He noted the Ink-a-Vote marked-ballot system was a poor fit for voters with physical disabilities or those who use any of Los Angeles County’s 12 official languages other than English.
But the final blow, he said, came when a number of L.A. communities switched away from odd-year elections to hold contests in tandem with California’s statewide primary.
“With the consolidation of the cities and the districts onto the ballot, the Ink-a-Vote system literally did not have the physical capacity for the length of the ballot and the number of contests and measures,” Logan said.
Designed through years of community input, the county’s VSAP system uses a touch-screen for in-person voting that marks choices on paper ballots for voters to review before they’re cast. Voters who want a faster experience can make selections ahead of time online and transfer them with a smartphone and a QR code to the machine that prints them on a completed paper ballot.
The system also required a redesign of absentee ballots, which will be counted using the same new devices that count the ones cast in person.
“I think the VSAP system does a good job at addressing a lot of problems we’ve seen in L.A.,” said Kim Alexander, president of the nonpartisan California Voter Foundation.
Those changes alone would be a lot for Los Angeles County voters to absorb. But the use of the new machines and ballots will take place under provisions of a 2016 state law that radically retools the election experience. It allows counties to swap traditional polling places for multipurpose “vote centers” and requires those facilities to open starting 11 days before election day.
Five counties used the new procedures in 2018 and 10 more will adopt the changes for the March election. Fourteen of those counties are required to mail every registered voter a ballot in exchange for closing neighborhood polling places. But L.A. County received a special — and controversial — exemption from that rule.
The result is that as many as 2 million voters will have neither a local polling place nor a ballot mailed to them — unless they request an absentee ballot by the statewide deadline on Tuesday.
It’s why some voting rights advocates will be watching the county’s election operations closely.
“I think L.A. County is the real hot spot,” said Jonathan Stein, voting rights manager for Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus. He said it’s not far-fetched to envision “significant challenges” for local voters on election day.
Marilú Guevara, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Los Angeles, said she’s heartened by the recent mailings to all households that explain the new system and vote centers. Yet she still worries that longtime voters won’t be aware of the change and will go to their former polling place out of habit — causing them to dash through rush-hour traffic to find one of the new vote centers.
“I hope that now more people who didn’t know about the changes coming to voting will start asking questions,” Guevara said. “I just hope it’s not too late for a large part of our electorate.”
Guevara’s worries could be justified. Only 38% of Los Angeles County voters surveyed in a USC poll released last week knew there had been changes made to the way in which they’ll vote in the upcoming election.
When state lawmakers in Sacramento were drafting the new election law, known as the Voter’s Choice Act, Los Angeles County lobbyists argued that the exemption was needed to “mitigate the bill’s operational and fiscal impact on the county.”
In an interview with The Times, Logan said that some voters want to cast a ballot in person and that the new system makes that easier. “I don’t think they’ve lost access to a polling place,” he said of those voters. “I think they’ve gained access to a place to vote over the course of 11 days.”
For those in-person voters, L.A. election officials will use 22,000 ballot-marking devices, to be set up in vote centers of various sizes beginning this weekend and lasting through election night. An additional 6,000 machines will be available as backups if needed.
Though the machines have been tested by state officials and by voters — a mock election was held in September and the new devices were offered as an option in roughly 40 polling places during municipal elections last fall — there have been errors, many of them over the last two days as the first vote centers opened across the county.
Complaints were lodged on social media that some of the ballot-marking devices and electronic “poll books,” which verify a voter’s registration, had failed to work. Some of the problems seemed to mirror acknowledgments by Logan in December, including that vote center staffers had been late in getting the machines working.
On Sunday, Logan said on Twitter that the rollout was “not without hiccups,” but noted that the “equipment performed well and voter feedback on usability was positive.”
Not without hiccups and first day issues, the new voting model in #LACounty is underway. #VSAP equipment performed well and voter feedback on usability was positive. More work ahead to ensure better coordination of facilities and logistics as we set course for the ten days ahead.— Dean Logan, RR/CC (@LACountyRRCC) February 23, 2020
In the soft debut of the machines last year, some of the ballot-marking devices experienced paper jams. In December, experts hired by the state raised concerns that inadequate security seals might not reveal if the ballot box attached to a device had been tampered with.
The November mock election also exposed problems with the printing of ballots, causing delays in tallying about 1% of the votes. A similar delay in a major election could affect tens of thousands of ballots, adding more time pressures to a process already closely scrutinized for how long it takes. In a December report to Los Angeles County supervisors, Logan said his staff has recalibrated printers.
Problems with the touch-screen machines — which electronically mark paper ballots — were also discovered during the mock elections, including what Logan informed supervisors was a “small number” of paper jams and incomplete error code messages that confused poll workers.
In addition, the highly touted smartphone feature “did not operate properly” during the mock election, according to the December report to county supervisors. Election officials say the software has since been updated.
On Jan. 24, Secretary of State Alex Padilla laid out a series of needed changes.
“I am insisting on some essential modifications to the system and requiring on-going reports from Los Angeles County so that we can continue to improve the voting experience for Angelenos,” Padilla wrote in his letter certifying the various VSAP components.
Logan told county supervisors that he would address Padilla’s conditions.
“Based on the mock election and the pilot election, we did make improvements and refinements,” Logan said during a board meeting on Jan. 28. “Every voting system certified in California has conditions.… We are confident that we can meet those conditions.”
One of those conditions is that every Los Angeles vote center must ensure there’s some way to cast a ballot if the new machines should fail.
In the other California counties implementing the Voter’s Choice Act, there are on-demand printers that can generate the correct ballot. But in sprawling L.A., where Logan points out there are some 62,000 different ballot configurations with municipal candidates and measures, there is no backup method to print ballots.
Instead, the state’s largest county will rely on the most rudimentary of backup plans: blank write-in ballots, forcing voters to write out a candidate’s name in every race in which they want to participate.
“That’s a fail-safe in the event that the entire system was down, a stopgap to make sure voting never stops,” Logan said.
Logan expects as many as 16,000 people will staff the vote centers, each person receiving an eight-hour instruction course. As in all elections, training is key: A social media posting that went viral this month wrongly said that all newly registered L.A. voters would have to show ID at vote centers — in fact, it only applies to a very small subset of voters whose initial registration material doesn’t comply with an 18-year-old federal law. California has no broad-based ID requirements for voters who show up to cast ballots in person.
Hasen, who has written extensively on how voting systems can be compromised by simple mistakes, said the early voting period — beginning this weekend and running through Monday, March 2 — will be a crucial test.
“There’s so much angst right now about voting systems,” he said. “And a lot of people are going to be surprised by all of this.”
Alexander’s nonpartisan group is urging L.A. voters to review voting information now and not be put off.
“A lot of the time, voters wait until the night before the election to open that mailed packet,” she said. “I think elections officials should be making contingency plans if there are really long lines.”