Supervisors took a significant step Tuesday to overhaul Los Angeles County’s antiquated ink-based balloting system by approving a $15-million contract with Palo Alto consultant Ideo for the design of a more modern way to record votes. Elections officials — who must serve about 4.8 million registered voters scattered across 5,000 precincts — began planning for a new system five years ago. The process was guided by an advisory committee that included local city clerks, voting rights and open government advocates, and officials from the local Democratic and Republican parties. The current system is known as InkaVote and requires voters to mark a paper ballot with their selections. Under the new system, projected to roll out in 2020, voters would make their selections using a touch screen, and the voting machine would then print a paper ballot to be tallied.
Envisioning a future that would make the founding fathers proud, Los Angeles County is investing $13.6 million to revolutionize its voting system and possibly set the standard for the rest of the country, too. After decades of putting up with the clunky InkaVote and its even clunkier predecessors — Votomatic punch cards, anyone? — the Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to develop a prototype with a touch screen and other high-tech innovations designed to serve the different needs of the county’s nearly 5 million registered voters. Barring any serious glitches, the new “ballot marking machine” will be field tested in 2017 and mass produced in 2018, in time for the gubernatorial election. “If this works well in L.A. County, it could be a game changer for the nation,” said Pamela Smith, president of Verified Voting, a nonpartisan organization that advocates election accuracy, transparency and verifiability. Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk Dean Logan said the machine’s engineering specifications, intellectual property and functional prototypes would be nonproprietary and remain in the public domain. “From the beginning, we’ve adopted the principle of doing this in a very transparent manner so other jurisdictions can take advantage of the data,” he said. The project’s first priority is to upgrade the county’s voting system but Logan added, “If we can do that in a way that is transferrable to other jurisdictions, that can advance voting systems across the country, it would be icing on the cake.”
Despite various Santa Clarita Valley governing boards’ approval of election changes in response to California Voting Rights Act concerns, an outdated county system won’t be able to handle the changes for at least another four years, officials said. “Our current voting system both the devices we use at the polls and, more importantly, the tabulations system we use… can not run a cumulative voting system,” said Efrain Escobedo, governmental and legislative affairs manager for the Los Angeles County’s Registrar-Recorder’s Office. “It’s just the limitations of the technology,” he said, referring to a voting system created in the late 1960s. And there’s no statewide precedent for how cumulative voting — a system that would allow a voter to cast up to three votes for one candidate in a three-seat race — is to appear on the ballot. “There’s also no voting system currently approved for use in California that can actually do that, either,” he said.
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.