Everything You Need to Know About L.A. County’s Newfangled Voting System

Polling places are out, vote centers are in, and the InkaVote system has gone the way of the dodo
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As Los Angeles County voters prepare to head to the polls on election day, there’s one big thing to keep in mind: the term “election day” no longer applies. Instead, it’s something like “election week-plus,” as Angelenos have a whopping 11 days to cast a ballot in person.

That is just one of many shifts in the local voting sphere. Virtually the entire process has been reconfigured and reimagined, as the county, under Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk Dean Logan, seeks to move beyond the InkaVote system that was originally deployed around the time of the dodo bird (actually just the 1960s). The new Voting Solutions for All People (VSAP) program has been in the works since 2009, and after a lengthy testing and certification process, it is being rolled out.

VSAP is similar to the past in that you still pick favored candidates and choose yes or no on a flurry of ballot measures. But nearly everything else has changed in the effort to make voting easier, faster and more efficient.

Here’s a rundown of what to expect, and some of the potential trouble points.

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Prolonged Process

We’ve all heard the cries about low election turnout and the contributing factors: people have jobs. They have kids. Lines are long. The choice of politicians is uninspiring.

Logan can’t do anything about the quality of the candidates, but he is torpedoing the time-related excuses with a voting window that opens in certain locations this Saturday, February 22, and will be in effect everywhere on February 29. People can cast ballots from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and on March 3 they can vote from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Results will come out that night.

Goodbye Polling Place

Another big change concerns where you cast a ballot. In elections past, the county set up approximately 4,500 polling places. This year, there are about 970 “Vote Centers.”

What impact will this have? Some worry that while certain dense neighborhoods hold numerous Vote Centers, other people may live in relative “voting deserts” where the destination is harder to reach. The county knows the change will raise some hackles, and there was an extended examination process to select locations.

It’s worth noting that more than 3 million of the county’s 5.4 million registered voters have permanent vote-by-mail status, according to the Registrar-Recorder’s website, lavote.net. Many of them will vote without ever leaving home.

For those venturing into the world, Logan’s office believes that the fewer on-site options will be more than counterbalanced by the extended ballot-casting period. Further, no one is restricted to a single location—whereas voters previously went to their designated polling place, now they can participate in the democratic process at any Vote Center.

“This system and model bring to voters an additional ten consecutive days that allows for voters to go to any location in the county,” said Mike Sanchez, a spokesman for the Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk’s office. “So if they are on the way to work or dropping kids off at school, or they go to school, or if they’re at the grocery store or a movie or the gym, there will be locations nearby.”

So if you are trying to decide whether to vote or see the new Sonic the Hedgehog movie, no worries—you can do both!

Ad Blitz

Many Angelenos know about the changes. But others barely pay attention to politics, and could head to their traditional polling place expecting the same old thing.

To prevent that, Logan’s team has gone on an informational and advertising blitz. The outreach effort is multifaceted and multilingual, said Sanchez, and includes ads in newspapers and websites, email blasts for those who registered an email address, and robocalls for people who provided a phone number. Mailers are being sent to every address where a voter has registered, informing them of nearby Vote Centers. Sanchez said there are even ads on the music streaming service Pandora.

What about those who still blindly hit the neighborhood polling place on March 3? Sanchez said if the site has not become a Vote Center, there will be signage near the entrance with a phone number and lavote.net.

Goodbye InkaVote

Once inside the Vote Center, things really change. Ditching the InkaVote system means welcoming a so-called “Ballot Marking Device.” Essentially, the voting cubicle gets a touch-screen tablet, which can be configured in 13 languages, and text size can be altered (there are audio headset jacks if needed).

The devices are not connected to the Internet, so there’s no need to fret that Russian hackers have already manipulated the results. Instead, you start, load in a paper ballot, and make selections on the screen. There’s a review page, and then you print the ballot before pressing another button to cast your vote. The papers are put in a secure box and will be tabulated later.

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But Machines Break

Logan’s office created this system from scratch, and even though there was an extended testing period, including mock election days last fall, his office acknowledges the need to be ready for the unexpected.

Sanchez asserts that this is the “beauty” of the extended voting period, and that malfunctions or mistakes will be caught early, allowing time for technical or procedural fixes. “Before if any issue arose, we had only hours to fix them,” he said. “Now we have additional days.”

If a Ballot Marking Device breaks, back-up machines can be delivered to the Vote Center.

A Question of More

One complaint with the new system is that when more than four candidates are seeking the same office, the voter has to click a “More” button on the tablet to see additional names. People worry that some voters will miss the prompt.

Sanchez said the office is taking multiple steps to avoid problems, including giving cards to voters indicating that some races have additional candidates beyond the first screen. He added that, after the mock elections last fall, the “More” button was made larger and a pulsing ring was placed around it to increase visibility.

The office is taking an abundance of caution, but expect at least one losing candidate to claim that being on a second or third page was the reason for a defeat.

Local Presence

In the 2016 primary, voters started by picking a presidential candidate, went through an abundance of state races, and then, if they had not fainted or quit in frustration, got to local matters. That lengthy process has also been decried as a reason for low participation in local elections.

The script is flipped this time.

Thanks to Senate Bill 25, authored by Assemblyman Anthony Portantino and signed by then-Governor Jerry Brown in 2018, the first things Los Angeles County voters now decide on are local matters, with a presidential choice at the end of the ballot. For instance, my sample ballot has me first picking a member of the LAUSD Board of Education.

Turnout

The aim of all the changes is to make voting easier and more efficient, and in the process, to boost participation. Sanchez said county turnout in the 2016 primary was just 42 percent.

There are numerous reasons that figure could increase this cycle, and while ease of voting might play a role, a bigger factor could be a wide open Democratic presidential primary and the sense that this year, an individual’s vote just might matter. But if people come to the polls and find the process is simple, that could facilitate greater participation in the future.

Actually, despite all the changes, one thing remains constant. Once you cast your ballot, you get that “I Voted” sticker. This year, you might just get it in February instead of March.


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