Square Peg, Round Hole: Incompatible File Formats at Root of Recent LA County List Problems

[Image via moneymarketing]

About two months ago, Los Angeles County, CA experienced an issue with precinct rosters for its June 5 primary that resulted in over 118,000 voters’ names being omitted from the roster. Now, an analysis of those problems reveals that incompatible file formats were a key underlying cause. StateScoop has more:

Multiple factors contributed to Los Angeles County eliminating more than 118,000 registered voters from the rolls during the June 5 California primary election, according to a report published Wednesday. The document, prepared by IBM Security Services, explains that software incompatibilities and clashing file formats between the state’s official voter list and the county’s system led to the voters being dropped from the roster.

At the time, county officials attributed the cut names to a printing error.

The affected voters accounted for about 2.3 percent of the county’s registered voters, and were spread across about one-third of the sprawling county’s precincts. The most populous in the United States, the county spans from the city of Los Angeles to the edge of the Mojave Desert, and boasts more than 5.1 million registered voters, more than one-quarter of California’s statewide total. People who showed up to vote but were told their names were not on the rolls were still allowed to cast provisional ballots.

The report’s executive summary, which was released by the Los Angeles County Counsel’s office, rules out a data breach or other kind of cyberattack, but it does reveal how quickly mismatched software can muck up an election. Still, it stopped short of being totally conclusive.

“IBM recreated the issue that led to 118,509 registered voters being excluded from the voter rosters, in two separate scenarios,” the report reads. “A definitive answer on which scenario actually took place for the June 5 Primary is impossible to determine due to a lack of audit logging available within the specific voter software system.”

The specific culprit was an inability to transfer voters’ birthdates, which resulted in them being excluded from the roster:

The IBM team found that a change to the file format of the official voter list provided by state authorities made it incompatible with the equipment used by the county. Because the county’s Voter Information Management System, or VIMS, had not been updated to accept the new file format, it generated records for those 118,509 voters without their dates of birth, rendering them ineligible.

“Since the birthdates were missing, the County’s system incorrectly classified these voters as ‘underage’ and left them off the printed precinct rosters,” a county press release states.

IBM ran simulations of the voter-roster generation, including one in which it exported records from the voter file provided by the state, stopping at 118,509 names, which investigators saw were processed without birthdates. A second export using the county’s data generated correct records matching voters’ names with their dates of birth. But IBM’s researchers also found that the VIMS system did not dump the incorrect records from the first export. They concluded that the voter roster Los Angeles County used on June 5 contained information from both exports, resulting in the voters who had been dropped…

In Los Angeles County, IBM recommends updating the VIMS software so it matches the state’s voter file and implementing stronger quality-control measures. 

Problems like this one highlight the importance of the common data format work that is underway as part of voting systems standards work at the federal level. Ensuring that various systems talk to one another – especially when different levels of government with separate vendors are involved – becomes increasingly vital as voter data is collected, verified and prepared for Election Day. It’s a problem that lives in the weeds of elections, but as LA County can attest, one that can bite if left unattended. Stay tuned …

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