Yeah, It’s Big: Primary Election Night in Los Angeles County

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[Image courtesy of Catherine Hazelton via Twitter]

When people discuss the election administration challenges that face large urban counties like Los Angeles County, CA it’s easy to look at the numbers (nearly 5,000 precincts and a voting population that would put them in the nation’s top ten if it were a state) and think you can understand the impact of the jurisdiction’s size on the collection and tabulation of votes.

Then, you’re standing in the parking lot of the library next door to the Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk’s (RR/CC) building as a helicopter – A HELICOPTER! – is delivering ballots from far-flung precincts in places like Catalina Island and Lancaster (over the mountains) to headquarters for counting. That’s when you think to yourself – yeah, it’s big.

I had the good fortune to spend most of the day in Los Angeles yesterday getting a first-hand look at the County’s primary election, both at headquarters and at some polling places in the area – and the experience was amazing. A few scattered impressions:

+ Because the County is still using its InkaVote voting system (essentially a modified punchcard that the County will eventually replace through its Voting System Assessment Project) the ballots must be transported to HQ for central counting. There, hundreds of clerks and students volunteers check seals, open bags and prepare ballots for counting. The Norwalk location becomes a beehive of activity as ballots make the journey from the back of a sherrif’s van through check-in to a room where boxes are opened and ballots checked for damage or other problems, to a room (“the MTS room”), which my colleague Catherine Hazelton said looked like a scene from Mad Men, where technicians load the cards into machines for counting and then place counted ballots in secure storage. The entire process is thoroughly choreographed and while it appears chaotic it isn’t difficult to see the care put into managing the flow of people and documents.

+ The logistics supporting Election Night are matched by those supporting Election Day. The County divides precincts into regions, which are assigned coordinators, troubleshooters and supply trucks that are parked in central locations and function as mobile warehouses for extra or replacement materials.

+ I also had the opportunity to see several polling places near HQ, including schools, a Hindu temple and a community park, where voters cast ballots in a small community center while children played outside at dusk – an democracy postcard if there ever were one. The voters I talked to were all happy with service they had received from pollworkers, even if they were disappointed that more of their neighbors hadn’t come out to vote.

+ One very weedy election geeky thing: while California’s “top two” primary has been the subject of some discussion and controversy with regards to its impact on state politics, it has eased the job of election officials since it eliminates the need to setup separate voting stations for different political parties. The rule doesn’t apply to Presidential races, which makes the separate presidential preference primary a continued election administration challenge.

All in all, it was an amazing experience – thanks to RR/CC Dean Logan and his team – especially Efrain Escobedo, Ken Bennett, Monica Flores, Jeff Klein and everyone else at HQ – for taking the time to let me get an up close and personal look at the county’s election administration system!

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