After disastrous March election, L.A. County faces ‘huge challenge’ in November
After a disastrous March election marked by breakdowns and delays at the polls, Los Angeles County election officials are approaching the November vote with a whole new set of challenges brought on by the pandemic as well as new scrutiny about the integrity of balloting.
It will mark the first election since the problem-riddled debut of the county’s new $300-million voting system, which officials have spent months trying to fix. And it will be the first election where ballots will be mailed to all 5.6 million registered voters, not just those who request them.
The county’s top elections official, Dean Logan, says his team is ready, but many with a stake in the election remain nervous about how it will perform amid the hurdles.
“Am I concerned? Yeah, and I am going to be concerned until Nov. 4,” said Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn, who has been vocal in her criticism after long lines and computer problems frustrated some voters in March. “We have a huge challenge in front of us.”
Shaping up as the biggest challenge is getting voters to rethink how they cast ballots. Officials want more residents to vote from home, despite a historical preference for in-person voting in Los Angeles.
The decision to provide mail-in ballots to every registered voter wasn’t originally planned until after the election, to better prepare the county’s systems and vendors for printing, processing and mailing the ballots. Officials fast-tracked it because of an order by Gov. Gavin Newsom in response to the pandemic as well as local fears that the new in-person voting system wasn’t up to the task of another election after its problem-plagued debut earlier this year.
Distributing and counting mail ballots presents its own set of difficulties. The ability to accurately mail ballots to all voters depends heavily on the accuracy of the state’s voter registration database, Logan has said, and also the ability of the U.S. Postal Service to deliver them. To help, Logan sent advance mailers over the summer to prepare voters and update their address information.
A surge of mail-in ballots is expected. In the primary election, which had lower turnout, Logan’s office only had to process 1.1 million mailed ballots. But the general election could mean as many as 3.7 million ballots cast overall, if presidential turnout trends hold.
By early October, each registered voter will receive a ballot via the mail. Voters can cast those ballots, which are trackable online, by using the postal service or by placing them in one of 400 secure drop boxes at parks and other public places. Voters can also cast their completed mail ballots at vote centers in the 10 days before or on election day.
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“We are encouraging voters who are able to do so to vote safely at home using their vote by mail ballot,” said Logan, the registrar-recorder/county clerk, noting the options for returning them. “At the same time, we want voters who need or desire an in-person voting experience to know those options are available and that safety precautions are in place.”
There will be 800 vote centers across the county where residents can cast a ballot specific to their home address, regardless of location. Like in the primary, the centers will be sprinkled throughout the county at schools and other quasi-public facilities, including sports venues used by the Dodgers, Rams, Lakers and Clippers.
Logan said his office has been “heads down” working to correct the capacity and procedural problems from the primary — and to prepare for the challenges posed by COVID-19, which will require sanitizing equipment and selecting venues capable of allowing voters to spread out.
Logan said his office plans to use as many as 16,000 election workers, many of them pulled from the county workforce, who are undergoing extra training on working in vote centers. The county workers are being used because Logan’s office expected the pandemic to cause a drop-off in volunteers.
Clerks working in vote centers must complete a three-hour online course and a five-hour in-person session. Their supervisors get the same online training but are also required to attend two eight-hour in-person sessions to ensure they’re ready. They must also do a walk-through at their respective vote centers the day before opening.
“Significant work has occurred and continues, focused on access to safe and secure voting options,” he said.
The upcoming test of the county’s voting system come only months after delays and long lines marred voting in the March 3 primary.
Problems with the county’s new $300-million electronic voting system — the first major changes in the county’s voting process in more than a decade — included network and capacity issues which were compounded by election workers who lacked the authority and training to address the issues.
An investigation ordered by county supervisors identified 47 “action items” to address the frustrations felt by voters, particularly those who tried to cast ballots on election day itself. Logan’s office noted in the report, for example, that roughly 15% of respondents said they had to wait up to two hours to vote.
A key reason for the delays were synchronization issues with the system’s new digital poll books, which were supposed to allow voters to check in at any vote center regardless of where they live in the county. Vote centers didn’t have enough poll books, exacerbating the delays, according to the report. And there were difficulties trying to find voters in the system due to a lookup search interface that was too limited for the size of the county’s electorate.
Logan said those issues have been addressed by working with state officials to improve the poll book interface so that election workers can more easily find voters using multiple search criteria. Logan said each vote center will also have at least five poll books to speed up the process.
In addition, Logan’s office said it has worked to fix paper jam issues on some of the thousands of new ballot marking devices that also caused delays.
Logan’s office submitted its changes to the ballot devices and vote tallying system to Secretary of State Alex Padilla, who hired an independent contractor to test them. A public hearing was held in late August, and certification was granted Thursday. The poll books have also been reviewed by Padilla’s office in a separate process.
Those with a big stake in the election say they hope Logan’s office has fixed the problems.
Mark Gonzalez, who chairs the Los Angeles County Democratic Party, said he’s worried about systems failing or long lines for voters who still prefer to vote in person.
“I’m again cautiously optimistic, but at that moment I was disappointed in a system that we were assured was going to work,” said Gonzalez, referring to his reaction in March.
Gonzalez said Logan’s office pledged to have enhanced the hardware and tools used by voters and election workers, and to have at least one on-site technical staffer to tackle any problems.
“Whether that will actually happen, I can’t say, but I’ve been assured,” said Gonzalez, who is encouraging voters to use mail ballots and do so early given concern about postal delays. “It’s important that the county registrar-recorder remains committed to what they promised.”
Sacramento bureau chief John Myers contributed to this report.
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