CA Primary Presents Big Test for L.A. County’s New Voting System

Bill Boyarsky
Columnist for LA Observed and former reporter, editor and columnist for the Los Angeles Times

After the fouled up Iowa caucuses gave vote-counting a bad name, there will be heavy pressure on Los Angeles County officials to make sure their brand new electronic voting system works for the March 3 primary election.

Media attention will be intense.  March 3 is Super Tuesday when California and 13 other states, plus American Samoa, hold primary elections to pick delegates for the national nominating conventions.  All eyes will be on the Democrats and their crowded, competitive close contest, especially in the two most populous states, California and Texas. California has a population of 19.9 million and 4.3 million live in  in the nation’s most populous county, Los Angeles.

Super Tuesday is especially important, since it follows the Iowa caucus fiasco, with its technical breakdown, and the important Nevada caucuses Feb. 22, with their own potential foul-ups. Troubles like these add to public unease about elections, fed by  suspicions that the Russian tried to rig the results in 2016 and may try again.

That makes the journalistic job of covering the mechanics of this year’s contests so important. Back when I was a traveling political reporter, I’d prefer following candidates, interviewing voters and exploring new cities and towns than sit through lectures on election laws and procedures. But as Iowa showed, the few reporters who had the patience to endure pre-caucus procedural meetings in that state understood the potential mess it became.  In today’s world, the glory and praise should go to reporters like Megan Messerly of the Nevada Independent, who is following the preparations for the Nevada caucuses, and Libby Denkmann of LAist, who is digging deeply into Los Angeles County voting.

The Los Angeles system, Voting Solutions for All People, will feature new ballot marking devices that resemble an electronic tablet or a large I Pad.  Touch your choice of a candidate’s name and your vote is recorded. Then you print out your completed ballot and turn it in, as you have done with paper ballots, as you did in the past.  Using the electronic voting devices, rather than punching choices on paper ballots, will be a big change, especially for voters who are not technically adept.  

The biggest change in the March 3 election will be switching to new vote centers, centralized facilities that will replace the traditional neighborhood polling place.  They’ll be open for 11 days before the primary, with longer hours. They will offer services such as registering to vote, changing parties and getting advice on election procedures in more than a dozen languages.

Under the best of circumstances, running an election in Los Angeles County is difficult. The county covers 88 cities, plus unincorporated areas extending over 4,058  square miles. Other complications are election laws designed, as the Los Angeles Times explained, “to encourage people to vote, including a new law this year that allowed eligible people to register and vote as late as Election Day.” While making it easier for people to vote, the laws will slow the count even more than in the past.

Secretary of State Alex Padilla, the state’s top election official, seems aware of weaknesses in the Los Angeles  County system. In granting conditional certification, he said, “I am insisting on some essential modifications to the system…”

He zeroed in on one of the major innovations installed in the system by Registrar-Recorder Dean Logan, in which everybody would vote in the same way, on the tablets rather than paper ballots.

Padilla also made his approval contingent upon Los Angeles fixing paper jams and other problems with the tablets and accompanying printers. And he insisted that the county should improve security.

Another problem is that only four candidates  can appear on the first digital computer page of a given race and voters will have to punch “More” to see the rest .  Beverly Hills has asked that the system be revised.

Denkmann reported on LAist that testing before Padilla’s conditional certification also found “vulnerabilities that left the door open to bad actors changing voting data and, ultimately, the outcome of an election.” Testers also found people could “access and alter electronic records and get into physical ballot boxes, all without detection.”

Logan said at state hearing on certification, “This is arguably the voting system that has the most robust testing and scrutiny” of any previous system.

I called and emailed Michael Sanchez, spokesman for the county election system, for comment on all this but he didn’t get back to me.  

Logan deserves a lot of praise for creating the new system to replace the antiquated equipment of the past. I just hope it works and we don’t become another Iowa.

 

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