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California

L.A. County voters encounter hours-long waits and glitches with brand-new system

Los Angeles voters who showed up to cast ballots in person on Tuesday reported long wait times and operational errors at a number of the county’s newly designed vote centers, experiences that suggested an inauspicious beginning for L.A.'s first fully redesigned election system in more than half a century.

While some Angelenos gave high marks to the new voting machines and applauded the extended hours of operation, a number of the in-person locations were overwhelmed by the throngs of voters looking to participate in the most talked-about California presidential primary in at least a generation. The flow of voters had hardly ebbed by the official end of voting at 8 p.m. Those in line at that time were allowed to stay there until they had a chance to vote.

“This is absurd,” said Jefferson Stewart, a software designer who left the vote center at the Westchester Family YMCA frustrated after waiting 90 minutes to cast his ballot. “If the idea is to make this simpler, it’s gotten much worse.”

Brentwood resident Myles Berkowitz found himself in a state of perpetual motion. He stopped by UCLA’s Hammer Museum around 4 p.m. but left after being told that it would be a three-hour wait. Three more locations, three more long lines. He ended up at the Felicia Mahood Multipurpose Center in West L.A.

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“They’re telling me, after waiting here for another hour and a half, that it’s another two hours,” Berkowitz said Tuesday evening as he stood in line. “This is like gridlock on the 405,” he said.

At Northridge Academy High School, the last voters of the night were Steve Gold and Dina Blandón, who emerged at 11 p.m. after waiting for almost two hours — they were able to join the line around 9 p.m. despite polls closing an hour earlier.

Gold said he hadn’t been aware of the 11-day voting window in L.A. County. He’d been sick with the flu and was worried about standing in a cold gym for an extended period.

“I was terrified we weren’t gonna vote,” he said.

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Local voting officials blamed the delays on a combination of high turnout and glitches affecting the new election equipment. But they couldn’t provide information on how many of the county’s 978 vote centers were affected. Official returns trickled in as the night wore on.

“This was a challenging day for a lot of voters in L.A. County and I certainly apologize for that,” said Dean Logan, the county’s registrar of voters. “That’s something that has to be better.”

Voters were quick to sound off on social media about the blunders: locations that didn’t open on time or were hard to find; ballot-marking devices that jammed or otherwise failed to operate; and electronic voter registration devices that didn’t work, requiring them to cast provisional ballots to be counted after eligibility is confirmed by election workers.

By the time Arcadia resident Omar Noureldin left the vote center at the Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles on Tuesday morning, the queue of people waiting to cast ballots stretched out the door.

“Those people that are in line around the corner are probably going to be there for three hours — if they wait,” he said.

Noureldin used an election shortcut offered under the new system: Ballot selections could be filled out on a smartphone ahead of time and transferred to the touchscreen machines with a QR code. The biggest issue he experienced, he said, was the lack of staff and voting machines at the center.

At Castlebay Lane Charter School in Porter Ranch, scores of people remained in a line when polls statewide closed at 8 p.m. Elections workers estimated they would wait anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes to cast their ballots.

“There was never a line the last several years,” said Craig Meier, a Porter Ranch resident who works as an executive assistant. At his old polling place at a church “we were in and out within 10 minutes.”

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Election day ended up as the ultimate stress test for the county’s new $300-million voting system. L.A. officials spent months trying to raise awareness about two big changes: the elimination of neighborhood polling places and the debut of ballot-marking touchscreen devices in regional vote centers, available to everyone and spread throughout the county.

The task was daunting. With 5.5 million voters, L.A. County is the largest voting bloc in California and larger than the electorate in all but 11 states.

Voters seemed to like the ballot-marking devices when they worked. The machine allows choices to be made on a touchscreen and then prints a paper ballot. Once the selections are reviewed, a voter feeds the paper ballot back into the machine where it’s deposited in a sealed ballot box.

Some 22,000 machines were deployed across L.A. County. Elections officials did not say how many machines failed and were taken out of operation.

Representatives of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign attempted to get a federal court to intervene to force L.A.'s vote centers to stay open until 10 p.m.

Voters reported machines out of service at vote centers in Arcadia, L.A.'s Carthay Square , Los Feliz and Rancho Palos Verdes.

A full day of problems plagued voting inside the Hammer Museum. By nightfall, a line snaked around the second floor as voters fiddled with phones, read books and propped up computers to do homework. By around 8:30 p.m., the last person in line had been told the wait would be up to 3½ hours.

“I always go to a place late on election day,” Sandra Kielgass said as she waited. “I guess it’s a good thing it’s so crowded. People are voting.”

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Waits of nearly two hours were reported on USC’s campus. Sarah Wagner, a 21-year-old student, was frustrated that poll workers didn’t tell her about nearby voting centers that had shorter waits until she was at the front of the line.

“You’d hope that voting would be a quick and easy experience to encourage young people to vote,” Wagner said.

USC researchers queried L.A. voters last month about the new voting system: Only 38% of respondents even knew of its existence.

Among those who didn’t know were Antonieta Espinoza, who stood outside a Catholic church in Palmdale on Tuesday, where she had just cast her vote.

Más trabajo y bien complicado,” the 80-year-old Palmdale resident said, explaining that she wasn’t a fan of the new voting system, which she found harder and more complicated to use.

Espinoza said she and her husband arrived at the elementary school near their home — their traditional go-to polling place — and found closed doors. They then headed to St. Mary’s Catholic Church, where after more than an hour of adjusting to the new system, Espinoza finally finished voting.

Other voters reported paper jams in the new machines and confusion over the need to press the “more” button on the screen to view additional candidates in certain races.

Ken Proctor, a retired teacher, said election workers at his Northridge polling place over the weekend couldn’t tell him what to do with his paper ballot after the machine printed it — even though it needed to be reinserted into the machine.

“When it printed out, I was looking for a ballot box to put it in and they didn’t have one and they didn’t know what else to do with it,” he said. “And they said just to keep it, so I did and brought it home.” Proctor said his wife later shredded the document.

“I think we both were kind of disenfranchised,” he said.

Not that all of the challenges in California’s closely watched election were confined to Los Angeles. State elections officials reported that 15 counties had experienced problems in the morning with connecting to California’s statewide voter database. Even with all of its problems, Los Angeles was not reported to be one of the counties.

The lack of online connectivity at polling places and vote centers would pose a problem for one of California’s most talked-about election changes: election day registration, designed to ensure that any eligible citizen can still vote before polls closed.

Some L.A. voters reported general satisfaction with the county’s new system.

Mary Wood, who responded to The Times’ online request for voters to share their stories, said the experience “was such a breeze” when she cast her ballot last week at the Pan Pacific Senior Activity Center in Los Angeles.

“The new system was easy to use,” she said. “I loved that you could review your ballot before submitting it.”

But few voters had actually cast ballots by the time election day arrived. L.A. County elections officials reported a total of almost 249,000 ballots were cast at vote centers in the 11 days leading up to Tuesday. By comparison, there were 2 million people who were not mailed a ballot and can only participate in the primary by voting in person.

Robert Little, a Beverly Hills attorney, tried to vote Tuesday afternoon at Beverly Hills City Hall when, seeing a long line, he then searched for an alternative. He found the Beverly Hilton and it, too, looked like a long wait, so he decided to put it off until later.

“It was not unlike the Southern California experience of trying to get on Space Mountain at Disneyland on the Fourth of July,” Little said.

Times staff writers Marisa Gerber, Emily Alpert Reyes, Dakota Smith, Benjamin Oreskes and Andrea Castillo contributed to this report.


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