Focus on 2020—Changing the Way We Vote in L.A.

Ballot Marking Devices (BMD) from IDEO in Palo Alto, are prototypes of voting machines
that L.A. County hopes to implement in Voting Centers throughout the County by 2020. Photo courtesy of LA County Registrar/Recorder

Get ready for a big change to the way we vote.

All registered voters in Los Angeles County can vote early because, in 2020, Los Angeles County will transition from polling places to local vote centers.

This new model, a $100 million upgrade, will enable Los Angeles County residents to cast a ballot at any one of 250 vote center locations over an 11-day period and a thousand vote center locations on election day.

Dubbed “Voting Solutions for All People (VSAP),” the new system will give people a chance to vote on weekends or at a more convenient time and place than just one precinct on one day. L.A. voters can also drop off their Vote by Mail ballots at any of the designated vote center locations or mail it in with the postage paid envelope.

To explain these changes, Jeff Klein of the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk—the department that manages the single largest electorate in the United States—held a voter outreach meeting at the Topanga Library on May 11.   

Hosted by Dorothy Reik, President of the Progressive Democrats of the Santa Monica Mountains (PDSMM), the meeting was full of people who brought a host of relevant questions about voter accessibility, ballot security, and voting locations.

One of the first questions was where were Topangans going to vote? Klein replied it was “most likely” that the Topanga Library would be used as a vote center location, but that County-wide assessments are still ongoing. For greater accessibility, other vote centers would be located in malls, shopping centers, libraries, or any of a number of convenient places near public transportation where people go on a regular basis.

For more information on vote centers: http://vsap.lavote.net/vote-center-placement-project/.

Klein also assured the meeting attendees that the newly designed Ballot Marking Devices (BMD) are not connected to the internet, nor will they ever will be. The BMD machines allow the voter to mark their ballot on a screen and print the selections onto a paper ballot that will be delivered to and scanned by the Registrar-Recorder’s office in Norwalk, just as they have been for more than 50 years.

 

L.A. COUNTY VOTING LOGISTICS

Guaranteeing every citizen the right to an accessible voting experience has been the highest priority for the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder’s office, which oversees the election process. With nearly five million registered voters, Los Angeles County represents the largest voting jurisdiction in the United States. Los Angeles County, has more registered voters than 42 states,

According to Klein, during a County-wide election there currently are 4,800 polling places spread over the county’s 4,750 square miles yet, the experience in recent years has seemed less than satisfactory, which has the County concerned about the overall voter experience.

As voters, we have all been there—rushing to the polling place on Election day, hoping you are in the right precinct, finding your name in the printed roster, signing in, finding your address on the street index, all while interacting with a well-meaning group of volunteer poll workers who may or may not know what they are doing.

When you finally get your ballot, you push it into the awkward ballot reader and punch the ink stylus through the tiny holes, hoping the ballot lines up with the candidates in each contest.

Los Angeles County has used the same voting procedures for more than 50 years and all agree that as the equipment ages and technologies evolve, it is time to upgrade the voting process for the 21st century.

 

VOTE CENTER PLACEMENT PROJECT

The Vote Center Placement Project’s (VCPP) core mission is to identify and place accessible and convenient vote center locations throughout Los Angeles County.

“As an election administrator, I can’t drive how exciting the candidates are or how controversial the measures are,” said Dean Logan, L.A. County’s Registrar-Recorder and County Clerk to FAST COMPANY in 2015. “What I can do, is drive a voting experience that’s appealing and makes you feel the actual weight of the significance of casting a ballot. To be able to go to any location that’s convenient to you, I think adds to that sense of intrinsic value to the voting process…, participating in something that’s meaningful and important, that’s consistent with the way [people] do other things in [their] lives.”

According to Logan, what we need is a more personal, interactive voting system that puts the voter first and, fortunately, help is on the way.

 

BALLOT MARKING DEVICES TO THE RESCUE

To revamp its antiquated voting system that dates back to the 1960s, in 2014, L.A. County embarked on a $15 million contract with IDEO, a Palo Alto design firm, to realize Logan’s vision of a fully upgraded voting system that could adapt over time.

According to County law, it was imperative for designers to build a system that would be useful and accessible to all types of voters, including those who are vision and hearing impaired, in wheelchairs, have learning disabilities, are unfamiliar with technology, and those who speak languages other than English.

The County’s goal is to create one device for equal access, to define a voting process that feels familiar to voters, balancing both emotional and functional needs, and to build a system that’s adaptable over time.

Therefore, instead of using the old-style Portable Ballot Reader, the clumsy Audio Voting Booth, or the Voters with Disabilities booth, the new design will allow each voter, regardless of need, to use the same machine as everyone else.

It’s this convenience factor that officials hope will ultimately make the act of voting more meaningful.

The new Ballot Marking Devices (BMD) will feature a touch screen that allows any voter to easily navigate the ballot by advancing through different screens showing lists of candidates and ballot measures. For those with vision impairment or reading disabilities, an audio and controller experience guides voters through their options with a push of a few simple buttons.

Voters who prefer to read the ballot in a different language—Spanish, Chinese, Korean, or any one of the 14 languages supported by the County—can choose their preference on the same machine.

Once they’ve tapped in their selections on the device, voters receive a printed paper ballot that goes into an integrated ballot box because the use of a traceable paper ballot is still mandated by law.

Voters can also mark their Sample Ballots on their cell phones, then go to a polling station to transfer their selections to paper ballots via the BMD and cast their ballots in a ballot box.

As the “gold-standard” for voting in the United States, L.A.’s new voting system has the potential to influence how other counties across the country update their outdated systems.

According to Klein, the new voting system will also update voter registration databases with custom software owned and managed by L.A. County, so everyone will have a chance to vote at any voting center regardless of where they live in the County.

Under California Election Law, Conditional Voter Registration (CVR) at each vote center will also allow a prospective voter to conditionally register and cast a provisional ballot.

Klein said this project has been in the works for 10-15 years and could represent the future of voting across the United States.

“This is something we are proud of,” he said at the May 11 meeting. “We tested this system on more than 5,000 people of all types and if they could use it, anyone can.”n

For more information go to LAVOTE.NET; and http://vsap.lavote.net/vote-center-placement-project/

In addition to reporting local news, Annemarie Donkin has been a precinct worker for many decades. She has seen all sorts of outrageous voting situations, including, as a County Coordinator, opening up a jammed portable ballot reader that spilled about 300 ballots on the floor just as they were calling the presidential election for Barack Obama in 2008. Donkin welcomes the change to early voting with the new booths.

 

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