State OKs LA County's New Voting Machines — With A Whole Lot Of Caveats

One of L.A. County's new voting machines displaying "mock election" options. (Kyle Grillot for LAist)

The state of California has given Los Angeles County's new voting equipment its seal of approval — with some significant caveats.

On Friday, Secretary of State Alex Padilla granted conditional certification to the Voting Solutions for All People 2.0 system, including new 'ballot marking devices' that the county designed and built from the ground up. It's making history as the first publicly owned voting system in the U.S. to be certified for widespread use.

But the county must meet a stack of requirements before primary election voters get their hands on the machines starting Feb. 22.

"Elections officials have a duty to make voting both as secure and as accessible as possible," Padilla said in a press release. "As part of my certification of VSAP, I am insisting on some essential modifications to the system and requiring on-going reports from Los Angeles County so that we can continue to improve the voting experience for Angelenos."

The headline? In a reversal of the county's plans, voters must be given the option to hand-mark paper ballots at new voting centers. (You can find the one closest to you here.)

The mandate flies in the face of L.A.'s 10-year goal: to create a fully accessible voting experience where everyone, regardless of physical limitations or language abilities, votes the same way.

Jurisdictions that use ballot marking devices generally offer a mixed system: voters have the option to use a machine to make selections and print a paper ballot, or hand-mark their ballot instead.

But L.A. County Registrar-Recorder Dean Logan has likened this blended model to creating "a separate but equal type of scenario." And there are several high-profile cases of jurisdictions — like the states of Georgia and South Carolina — switching to the all-machine approach in 2020.

Many election security experts argue that hand-marked ballots are the only sure inoculation against election hacking or tampering.

VOTING IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER. SO WHAT'S NEXT?

It's not yet clear what the "blank write-in paper ballots" Padilla required in his certification decision will look like — that's up to L.A. County. They must "contain all elements consistent with the Federal Voting Assistance Program's federal write-in absentee ballot," according to the Secretary of State.

[Check out the Federal Voting Assistance Program's ballot here. It's pretty much a blank slate with spaces to write in presidential, statewide and local candidates.]

"Voters may have to hand write candidates' names," Padilla's office said in a press release. "[B]ut these ballots provide an opportunity for voters to hand mark their ballot if that is their preference."

More takeaways from the 35 conditions included in Padilla's certification announcement:

  • Los Angeles has to address paper jams and misfeeds — which testing showed was happening nearly 5-times more than allowed by CA standards — through training and messaging for voters and election workers

  • All physical ballot boxes must have 'Secretary of State approved tamper evident...seals' on the seams between voting machine printers and ballot boxes

  • The county will tighten password security, add USB port covers at workstations with tamper-evident seals, submit a plan within 6 months to get to full disk encryption, and bring cryptographic modules up to a certain standard validation

  • The state is requiring detailed reporting on election worker training and records of all machine errors or paper jams that happen during the primary election

There is no substantial change mandated for the design of the "MORE" button that lets voters see candidates listed past the first digital 'page' on the ballot marking machines — a feature that's now the subject of a lawsuit by Beverly Hills.

LA County must review the 'MORE' button, however, and do more education and outreach to make sure voters and election workers know how to see all candidates on the ballot.

The Registrar-Recorder's office says the certification conditions were all "openly discussed" by the county to address the results of independent testing.

"It is appropriate and expected that the VSAP system would undergo unprecedented review and testing," said Logan in a press release.

LAist requested an interview with Logan for this story. The county declined, citing scheduling conflicts. Logan responded to some of our reporting on Twitter.

Los Angeles election officials are committed to exceeding "a high standard of achievement and security," Logan added in the county's certification announcement.

Read the Secretary of State's VSAP 2.0 Certification Document here: