L.A. County reboot of voting machine tech makes progress

150 150 Bill Britt

(Photo Credit: Lu Lu, Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk)

In this age of smartphones, touch-screens and the Internet, Los Angeles County’s 50-year old voting system of punch cards and user guides ranks closer to the era of chalk marks and blackboards. Now, the most populous county in the U.S. is less than one year away from completing the design stage of an overhaul that could mark the beginning of a new way of voting in California and beyond.

Dean Logan, the registrar-recorder for Los Angeles, where five million voters currently cast ballots on ink-based machines, expects the design phase to be wrapped up by this time next year and the new voting system fully operational for the 2020 elections.

“The hallmark of this project is that we’re designing it for the voter first, to make sure that the voting experience is a good one and the thing that makes this so exciting is that we’re operating in a time when you can do that,” said Logan. “You can focus on the user and then back into the technology and the software.”  

To find out exactly what kind of experience people want when they vote, the County gave its project the Silicon Valley treatment by teaming up with the design firm IDEO, the Bay Area company that helped create one of the most innovative products millions of people now take for granted: Apple’s first computer mouse. 

“Their expertise is in the user experience,” Logan says. “[Aside from extensive surveys,] sometimes they just randomly talked to people about how they interact with other services and got their feedback.”

The result: If you’ve ever used a smartphone, voting should be a cinch.

“For example, some of the components will include touch-screen technology and the majority of people are already familiar with that,” said Logan. “It also allows for voters to customize the equipment if they want to hear the ballot in another language. If they want to change the font size or the screen contrast they can do that as well.”

(Photo Credit: IDEO)

Even the vote-by-mail process is getting a complete makeover. The current system has user guides that tell voters which oval to shade in on a sheet that looks like an IBM punch card. The new experience will be what you’d expect: Candidates and measures displayed on the ballot itself.

One thing that won’t be in the new voting booths: a language barrier. Logan says, because there are as many as 15 languages spoken in L.A. County, “this system will allow you to select Cantonese and give you the option of both seeing the ballot in Cantonese and listening to the ballot in Cantonese if you so choose.”

According to the Brennan Center for Justice’s independent research, new technology incorporated into voting machines typically doesn’t last more than ten years, twenty at best. As far as the county’s new system is concerned, there’s an app for that.

“By the time you buy the iPhone 6, the iPhone 7 is being developed,” Logan said. “We want to be sure that we’re designing this on an agile platform so the system can adapt to changes. If there’s a better touch screen in two years we want to be able to update the system rather than start over.”

As for paying for it, Logan says the county is in a good position, for now.

“We still have a fair amount of funding that’s been dedicated to voting systems replacement in L.A. County,” said Logan. “There just hasn’t been anything on the market that would function well here, so we’ve been doing short-term adaptations rather than full replacement.”

Logan says California Forward’s Election Funding Project, designed to explore funding models both in California and nationwide to create a list of viable options, is sorely needed. He added neighboring counties that in the past used federal and state money to replace punch card systems now have obsolete equipment on their hands.

“There’s no longer federal funding or a state bond to support that,” said Logan. “So the project California Forward is undertaking is critically important. We’ve seen the history of voting systems in the post Bush v. Gore era where some of those systems have been developed and rolled out too quickly. We don’t want to make that mistake. We want to be sure that we do this right.”


Bill Britt

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