L.A.'s Elections Overhaul Could Provide a New Model

The largest elections jurisdiction in the country is trying to develop its own unique voting system. But it faces some hurdles to get there.
by | October 25, 2011

Dean Logan, the registrar-recorder/county clerk in Los Angeles County (the largest voting district in the country), is currently facing a daunting goal that will affect over 4 million voters: completely overhauling its dated election system over the next five years. Recognizing that it's time for a change, Logan and his office are now trying to determine what, exactly, should they replace their election system with. They might wind up with something truly unique, something of the people.

The current system, Logan says, lacks the flexibility to suit the county's increasingly diverse population. The county currently uses something like a punchcard voting system adapted from technology developed more than 40 years ago. Voters slide a paper ballot into a template with candidate names and mark it with ink. The ballots can be tabulated quickly, are easy to store, and provide a physical record of each vote. But they don't list candidate names on the actual paper -- those appear on the template -- so it's difficult for those who use the increasingly popular mail-in option to case their votes. The system also offers little in the way of of sophisticated language assistance or help for disabled voters.

“It’s old technology,” Logan says. “It’s not going to sustain a whole lot longer.”

None of the system's original developers are employed by the county, and it's become increasingly difficult to find people “with requisite skills in obsolete mainframe technologies" to replace retiring staff, according to a county report. Purchasing a new system don't fit well with L.A. County's operations: direct-recording electronic (DRE or touchscreen) machines are too expensive to be rolled out and maintained across 5,000 polling locations. A low-tech system -- such as one that relies on hand-counting -- could yield inaccuracies in a county as large as Los Angeles.

Yet L.A. County is so large that it may be able to get the private-sector or a non-profit to develop something original. And as Logan sees it, he has no other choice than to go that route. “The market, as it exists today, can’t meet the needs of L.A. County,” he says.

So Logan’s office is trying a different process: giving the people what they want. As part of an effort to determine how Angelinos should vote, the county teamed up with a partnership between the California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to survey more than 1,000 voters, more than 1,000 poll workers, 26 city clerks from across the county and 64 staffers in Logan’s office. Participants are being asked what they like about the current voting system and what they’d like to see in the future. The county also got input from various stakeholders like advocates for the disabled and those with limited English skills, as well as local party officials.

The findings left no question about the needs for a change. “[T]he current system lacks the flexibility to meet voter preferences, as it does not offer voters an intuitive and user-friendly interface that retains confidence that votes are being cast and counted in a secure and efficient manner,” Logan wrote in a memo to county leaders earlier this year.

Logan sees this initiative as an opportunity for the future. His challenge will be to balance the needs of younger voters who are familiar with higher-tech devices with older residents who favor a more traditional approach. There's also the demands of choosing voting technology that’s flexible enough to allow for multiple translations and disability services while convenient enough to be used for mail-in voters.

Then there are the demographic differences. All voters seem to care about the privacy of their ballot, accuracy of the voting system, and its ease of use, Logan says. But not always in that order. Young people are most interest in convenience but aren't so worried about whether people know who they vote for. Older voters, on the other hand, view security as paramount.

The county is sharing the findings of its surveys with think tanks and other organizations in hopes that it may be used to design a better voting system. The goal is to begin phasing in a new voting system by 2015 and have it running across-the-county in time for the presidential elections in 2016. So far, Logan doesn't know what that system will look like, but says it may require a blend of different approaches.

Whatever is developed will ultimately have to be approved by both federal and state regulators, which have a testing regimen designed for the commercial market. Vendors pay to get their products tested, and if they get the seal of approval, the vendors go to market. But if the county partners with a university or non-profit to design a system, that model may not work, since the up-front investment to pay for testing wouldn't necessarily be available. Logan also faces a ticking clock: the testing process takes two to three years.

Meanwhile, the county has $77.9 million in state and federal funding available for voting system upgrades, but it’s unclear whether it can use that money for research-and-development process, or if that money is strictly for equipment purchases. So in addition to developing a voting system, the county is trying to determine what sort of regulatory and legislative changes it will have to request. “At some point we're going to have to push the boundaries of the regulatory environment to make it work,” Logan says.

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