Barriers to the Ballot Box

Published — September 8, 2020

How LA’s election innovation fell short

More than 150 people line up to vote near the end of Super Tuesday at the Stoner Recreation Center in West Los Angeles. Some voters throughout the city had to wait more than two hours to vote. LA faced several technical and logistical hardships on Election Day. (Matt Vasilogambros/Stateline)

This story was originally published by Stateline.


LOS ANGELES — Local election officials spent one decade and $300 million to design an innovative voting system that many experts thought was the future of elections. But at vote centers throughout the sprawling city on Super Tuesday, some Angelenos waited for more than three hours to cast their ballots.

The frustration was hard to ignore as more than 100 people stretched down South Broadway around noon, queueing in front of the opulent Ace Hotel in LA’s Theatre District. Inside, there were just four working voting machines and two check-in stations. One voting machine had been broken since Saturday, but the county had not yet sent anyone to fix it.

Los Angeles County is the first jurisdiction to own and design its own voting system. Officials ditched paper ballots for hybrid paper-electronic machines built for accessibility, while also allowing voters to cast their ballots in any vote center, the county’s term for a location where people can vote or drop off a ballot. With more voters than 42 states, the county could provide a template for other jurisdictions looking to develop an accessible voting system that doesn’t skimp on security.

This week’s botched rollout could complicate that prospect.

Jett Tucker works downtown and thought about casting his ballot before heading into the office. But when he arrived around 9 a.m., the line was already staggeringly long. He thought about coming back later but decided to stay.

“It was really bad,” he said after waiting two hours to vote. “You start questioning yourself at the end. Does my vote really matter?”

Marisol Rubio, the vote center lead, walked through the line, encouraging voters to make their selections on the Los Angeles County elections website on their smart phone to save some time. The site produced a QR code that voters could scan at the booth. If they didn’t want to wait in line, she told them to head to two other vote centers less than a mile away on Skid Row; each had 50 machines.

“We weren’t expecting this many people,” she said hurriedly, before getting on the phone with the county to try to fix their broken machine.

A polling machine at the Ace Hotel vote center in Downtown Los Angeles sits unused, broken four days earlier. (Matt Vasilogambros/Stateline)

But Election Day was a mixed bag here. Several locations had long lines, problems with e-pollbooks and poll workers who spoke no language but English. Nevertheless, most voters interviewed by Stateline found the new system intuitive and secure — a major improvement from the seemingly archaic way voters here cast ballots for the past 60 years.

Registrar of Voters Dean Logan said Los Angeles County will have to work through these growing pains, as he called them.

It was a challenging day for LA voters, he said, apologizing in a news conference Tuesday night. There were many lessons, he said, and he hopes to make necessary fixes before November. The major problems, as Logan saw them, were the bottlenecked check-in process, the capacity and distribution of the 960 vote centers, and an overestimation of the number of people who would vote in the 11-day early voting period.

“Obviously, this was not the rollout we had hoped for,” he said, with the eyes of a 5.4 million-voter county on him. “A lot of that falls on my shoulders and our shoulders at the Registrar-Recorder’s office to figure out how we get the logistics and capacity issues straightened out well before November.”

While it’s too early to diagnose what exactly went wrong, rolling out a complex new voting system in a high-turnout presidential primary was a challenging task, said Justin Levitt, associate dean for research at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

“This was a screwup,” he said. “But it’s really important when figuring out a systemic fix to actually wait for the data to come in.”

But Los Angeles’ innovations should not be ignored, said Levitt, who served on the county’s advisory board during the system’s development. Officials set a model for voting system design, he said, that other counties will want to copy in years to come.

Differing Voter Experiences

For much of the early voting process and in many places on Election Day, the new system in Los Angeles shone as a major improvement over previous elections for voters.

Until now, Angelenos voted on 1960s-era election equipment, using an ink stylus to stamp paper ballots that slid into a booklet of candidates and ballot questions. It was one step up from a punch card. People constantly worried whether the ballot was aligned correctly.

Now, voters in the most populous county in the country insert a paper ballot into a digital reader. Voters then make their selections, race by race, on a touch-screen tablet. At the end of the process, voters can review their selections on both the screen and paper ballot.

The machines, built by international voting technology company Smartmatic, can be used by any voter, regardless of physical abilities or preferred language, with ballots in 13 languages.

Nicole Smarsh went into her Koreatown polling place skeptical. She was about to cast her ballot on brand new digital voting machines. In this age of election hacking and the Iowa caucus catastrophe, could she really trust that her vote would be counted?

But when she came out of the Seoul International Park voting center on a chilly Southern California morning, as the sun rose over the residential area and a light breeze swayed towering palm trees, she was beaming.

“Holy moly,” she said. “It’s so much better.”

At the same location, Sunny Chun said she appreciated being able to vote on a Korean-language ballot.

As he left the Hollywood Recreation Center vote center, Greg Didier said he found this new voting experience more comfortable and easier than the county’s old system.

“This one feels more secure to me,” he said. “It gives me assurance that my vote actually matters.”

Generally, this was the experience of most voters during early voting and in the early hours of Election Day, said Levitt of Loyola Law School. But the convenience strained under pressure, he said, as some locations had too few machines and check-in stations to meet the volume.

Raúl Preciado worked the hotline at the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials’ Los Angeles office, taking calls from voters having problems. He noticed many were discouraged by long lines and a lack of Spanish-speaking poll workers in majority Latino neighborhoods.

“We were disappointed to see what panned out,” said Preciado, the program director for the nonprofit’s Ve Y Vota voter education program. “It might turn people away from the system. It was a mess.”

While many voters found the system intuitive, others didn’t. Peter McNulty, a middle-aged early voter, couldn’t hide his frustration after leaving his vote center in Venice on Monday.

“It’s way too complicated,” he said. “The old way with the ink, it was way easier. None of it was good. I’m used to phones and stuff, but I can see people getting thrown off by this.”

Similar security concerns dogged the new election system in the months leading up to the primary. But many security experts and voting rights advocates were excited by what Los Angeles County developed, saying it could be a model for other jurisdictions nationwide once officials work out the kinks.

Voters cast their ballots at the Hollywood Recreation Center on Super Tuesday. This was the first election using the country’s only publicly owned voting system. (Matt Vasilogambros/Stateline)

A Voting System for the Future?

There has long been a division in the election community between access and security — some thinking the two can’t coexist. But that’s a false narrative, said Michelle Bishop, disability advocacy specialist for voting rights at the National Disability Rights Network.

Los Angeles County, she said, found a way to use a secure, paper-based system while also ensuring voters with disabilities could cast a ballot privately and independently, not segregated to separate voting machines.

“We should be looking at what they’re doing in LA County and thinking there is a better process for creating these systems,” she said. “I think that’s the kind of innovation we should be encouraging.”

As questions about the Iowa Caucus results showed, there’s a heightened awareness of election security and potential tampering by malicious actors.

But in Los Angeles County, observers say, officials may have found a way to develop a secure voting system that even satisfies some security experts. The machines are not connected to the internet and have added protections to prevent physical hacking.

“The machines are designed to be as secure as possible,” said Maurice Turner, deputy director of the Internet Architecture Project at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Democracy and Technology. “Almost every voter in the county has the opportunity to go to a number of vote centers to vote independently, privately and have a level of confidence that their ballot is going to be counted correctly.”

Months ahead of Super Tuesday, security consulting firm Freeman, Craft, McGregor Group tested Los Angeles’ new system, digging through security gaps and potential functionality problems. In several areas, the firm said in a report to the state, these gaps could “result in undetected changes to files and data” and “give access to the system by unauthorized individuals.”

But California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, a Democrat, found that these issues could be fixed. He directed the county to make hand-marked paper ballots for those who didn’t want to use the new machines. With those conditions, he certified the system in late January.

Responding to testing, Los Angeles County added new security measures to its equipment and official tallying center, including new seals to USB ports.

Officials also fixed several usability issues by adding elements to the voting machines to prevent paper ballot jams and display features to draw attention to the “more” button for crowded races with several pages of candidates. In January, Beverly Hills sued the county over what the city called a “severe ballot design flaw.”

Some security experts, though, still found the security gaps alarming. Susan Greenhalgh, policy adviser at the nonprofit National Election Defense Coalition, had several concerns with the new system.

Like many in the election security community, she is not confident with voting on electronic ballot-marking devices, which, she pointed out, are vulnerable to hacking attempts and glitches that could delay the voting process, leading to long lines and potentially disenfranchising voters. Voting on a paper ballot is more secure, she and others have argued.

But Greenhalgh’s concerns for Los Angeles went further. The county and the state, she said, did not handle the certification and testing process properly by ensuring the equipment had added security measures that could prevent tampering.

“It was short on so many of these areas of security,” she said leading up to Election Day. “It’s worrisome because we’re in an age when you don’t want to be cutting corners. The security issues are real and need to be addressed.”

Dan Murphy, engagement director for Smartmatic, the London-based technology company contracted to develop the new election system, stood by the security of the system, saying many of the problems stemmed from the check-in process and distribution of vote centers.

“We feel that the machines did well,” he said Wednesday, “and people really liked the voting experience.”

Los Angeles County has committed to making this new election system open-sourced, with the technology available to other jurisdictions. Sharing the technology could address what election experts say is a failure of the current market, in which three firms are dominant and there is a lack of federal investment.

“No one has done what LA has done,” Murphy said. “Innovation in the election space is difficult because you have to have somebody who’s willing to pay to innovate. We all benefited from the fact that LA was willing to do this, and that LA had the resources and the technical knowledge to even try this.”

Read more in Money and Democracy

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