Los Angeles County is re-inventing the nation’s largest voting system, which serves nearly 4 million registered voters. The goal is to build a more flexible, user-friendly system that could be licensed for use in other cities and counties around California. … The architect of all this is Dean Logan, registrar-recorder for Los Angeles County. He oversees a system that dates from the 1960s. The county uses ink-marked ballots and old IBM card-counting machines. The 50-year-old system is nearing the end of its useful life. After the presidential election in 2000, when voters complained they mismarked the controversial butterfly ballots used in a Florida county, Congress and state governments gave counties millions of dollars to replace old punch-card ballot systems with digital voting machines. Across California, counties adopted those systems, some of which now need updating. Los Angeles County resisted buying the machines, and still has $60 million of federal and state money to spend on a new system. Only five brands of voting machines are certified for use in California. Logan said the county doesn’t want them. They are too expensive and bulky to put in some 5,000 polling places. “There really is no existing voting system out on the market,” he said. “It’s a very limited market in the first place.”
Another challenge in the current system is dealing with the rising number of vote-by-mail ballots and envelopes. A more convenient, accessible voting system could reduce that burden. A lot of people handle those ballots and not always gently, said Efrain Escobedo, a county project manager, as he showed the county’s ballot counting rooms.
“We get a lot of things being done to ballots, and a lot of things being returned in vote-by-mail ballots,” Escobedo told a group of election experts during a tour. “I think the second election I was here we actually had a hazmat crew who had to come in a couple of times.”
But California law doesn’t yet permit L.A. County to create its own system. State Sen. Alex Padilla drafted a law, SB 360, to allow the county to build a new system and license it for use in other jurisdictions around the state. It will be the subject of a legislative hearing later this month. The county has hired Bay Area design firm IDEO to take the public’s best ideas and envision a system that could work in the real world. “Today we’re at the stage where we’re taking all that raw data now and saying, ‘OK, now we’ve got to make that into something tangible,’ ” Logan said. “We’ve got to figure out what that’s going to look like.”
Logan is most fond of the “vote anywhere” ideas that were submitted. “You might have multiple voting centers that any voter can go to and access their ballot,” Logan said. “They might be able to scan that ballot and confirm that their choices were read correctly and deposit it into a ballot box and know that it will be tabulated.”
Noel Runyan, a consultant on Bay Area ballot systems and computer security, is one of the experts on a technical committee monitoring the makeover. “I’m particularly impressed with the fact that Los Angeles County is really doing this right by starting from the bottom, and designing things from the beginning that need to be considered,” said Runyan, who is blind.