If abysmal election participation is any indication, voter experience in the United States desperately demands an overhaul. In 2014, turnout hovered around just 36 percent. Federal and local governments have been experimenting with ways that technology can streamline services, whether it’s obtaining business permits or healthcare. In Los Angeles County, the focus is on a pillar of democracy: voting. Dean Logan is the Los Angeles County Registrar and County Clerk and is leading the local call for a new approach to voting. “We live in a time where technology is changing rapidly and where voters and citizens are used to some level of customization and choice in how they participate in civic activities,” Logan says. “We need a system that caters to these experiences. It needs to be agile, secure, and private but as a core foundation it needs to be adaptable to technological advancements and changes in voter behavior.” In 2014, L.A. County embarked on a $15 million contract with Ideo to take a human-centered approach to the problem. The resulting prototype, which is still in the review stages, centers around reinventing voting from two angles. The first is recasting the entire experience from beginning to end. The second is building new machines that offer the ease and flexibility of touch screen systems with the security of a paper trail.
A new system won’t cause civic engagement to spike overnight, but it’s a step in the right direction. There’s little confidence that votes are counted correctly, new stories surface regularly about the technical susceptibility of systems in place, ballots change by jurisdiction, and there are many layers of complexity throughout. Moreover, voters are required to head to a specific polling place during a set time period.
The L.A. project’s genesis dates back to the infamous 2000 Bush v. Gore election debacle. At the time, there was a close margin between the two candidates in Florida, which resulted in a ballot recount that exposed flaws in the system. The punch-card ballots were confusing, eligible voters were incorrectly turned away, some voters didn’t complete their ballots correctly, and there were different standards in place to evaluate ballots that had to be hand-counted. Essentially, there is little faith that the current systems in place reflect accurate votes—a very discouraging fact in a county that’s founded on democracy.