Los Angeles County Unveils New Voting System Prototype

LA.VSAP.Prototype

[Image by JoeBeOne via Twitter]

One of the most eagerly-anticipated projects in elections took another step forward last week as Los Angeles County, CA unveiled the prototype of the new voting system developed through its Voting System Assessment Project (VSAP). The LA Times has more:

Los Angeles County officials announced they’ve completed the first phase of a major planned overhaul of the county’s voting system.

County Registrar-Recorder Dean Logan envisions a future system in which, instead of being directed to designated polling stations on a single Tuesday, voters will be able to choose from hundreds of voting centers around the county during a 10-day window leading up to election day.

There, instead of marking their selections with pen and paper, they will enter their selections on touch-screen ballot-marking devices, print out a paper ballot to review their selections, and feed the ballot back into the machine to be stored and counted.

The county began exploring a redesign of the system in 2009. In 2014, the county Board of Supervisors approved a $15-million contract with the Bay Area design firm IDEO. The planning and design process has cost $14 million to date, Logan said.

Elections officials unveiled the completed prototype of the new voting machines Thursday. The devices were the product of dozens of earlier prototypes and feedback from more than 3,500 voters, designers said.

A key feature of the VSAP has been the decision to look at the entire voting experience and not focus just on voting machines:

“We really took a step back and tried to take a holistic view to understand wishes, desires, pain points in the voting system today,” said IDEO executive program director Annetta Papadopoulos. “We focused on the diversity of voters that make up Los Angeles, people with all kinds of accessibility challenges, be it fine motor, visual, people with different native languages and different levels of literacy.”

Many voters complained of pain points in the system after the June 7 [primary] election. These included broken voting machines, voters whose names did not appear on rosters or appeared under the wrong party, and difficulty in obtaining “cross-over” ballots for independent voters who wanted to cast votes in the Democratic party presidential primary.

More than 250,000 voters had to cast provisional ballots, and the count of provisional and late vote-by-mail ballots has continued through this week.

Logan said had the new system been in place, “I would argue … it would have been a fundamentally different voting experience on June 7.”

With voters no longer confined to a single polling place, many of the issues with voter rosters that led to provisional ballots would not have occurred, he said.  Voters wanting to cast a cross-over ballot could have selected the correct ballot through the system’s user interface.

“This is not just about equipment and technology,” he said. “It’s about the whole voting experience.”

Also encouraging for the future is the project’s effort to address and incorporate concerns about existing voting technology – and success could reverberate far beyond L.A.:

Earlier touch-screen voting systems raised security concerns in some quarters, because the votes were transmitted electronically, in some cases without a paper record, leaving them potentially vulnerable to tampering by hackers.

David Dill, a computer science professor at Stanford who has been an outspoken critic of electronic voting systems, said the proposed Los Angeles County system does not pose the same security concerns because it will produce paper ballots that will be reviewed by the voters and can be audited later. The greater potential issues will be in the system’s usability, he said.

“In practical terms, the biggest problems are it’s difficult to design what is essentially a consumer device and get all the software and design details right,” Dill said. But if successful, he said, the new system could reduce the potential for voter error and make the process easier for people with special needs.

“Voting systems can be better, and particularly a place like Los Angeles has these special challenges that are not being met very well by the voting machine manufacturers,” he said. 

If successful, the Los Angeles system could be picked up by other election offices looking to replace their aging fleets of voting machines.

“Election officials that we spoke to across the country told us they were watching that project,” said Christopher Famighetti, a voting rights researcher at the Brennan Center for Justice who co-authored a recent report on the dangers of aging voting equipment.

Now that the prototype is available, the County still has several steps to take – including procurement, testing and legislation – before the machines go into widespread use:

Los Angeles County officials are now formulating the bidding process that will select a manufacturer for the new machines. The devices will also need to undergo state testing before they can go into use.

Logan said his office is waiting for passage of state legislation [SB 450, which passed the Senate and recently cleared an Assembly committee – ed.] that would set up the parameters for a new “vote center”-based system. The legislation would in part determine how many voting centers and machines would be required, which would dictate the project’s ultimate cost.

He hopes to roll out the new system on a limited basis for early voting in the 2018 election, and to convert completely by 2020.

The word “transformative” gets thrown around a lot these days, but I think it’s fair to say that what LA County is doing with this new system will genuinely transform the field of elections, not just in the final product but in the effort to look at the entire election process to determine the best approach – and then design a system that fits those specifications rather than look for an existing system that’s close enough. Kudos to everyone involved in VSAP, including Dean Logan (and more importantly, the policymakers who had the faith to invest public dollars in the project) for bringing the future of elections in California – and elsewhere! – another step closer to reality.

Stay tuned …

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