Is LA County Heading For A Confusing March 3 Primary? Voters Face This Gauntlet Of Changes

A voter chooses a language on the new L.A. County ballot marking devices during a mock election at Salazar Park in East L.A. on September 28, 2019. (Al Kamalizad for LAist)

It's early, but a few presidential campaigns seeing the fundraising writing on the wall have "suspended" their quests for the Democratic nomination after dismal performances in New Hampshire. And clarity may be on the horizon: Super Tuesday brings primaries in a number of delegate behemoths — including California.

But the drama may not wait for the close of polls on March 3. In Los Angeles County, by far the largest jurisdiction in the country, voters will be navigating a gauntlet of changes to how they cast their ballots, including new locations and technology.

Some worry sunny L.A. could be headed for a perfect storm of election confusion:

  • For starters, most Angelenos who've headed to the same polling place near their homes year after election year won't be casting ballots there anymore.
  • Instead, the county is opening up a smaller number of new "vote centers" offering up to 10 days of early voting.
  • Once inside, in-person voters will mark their ballots on brand-new machines that were recently certified by the state.

It's all adding up to worries about how disorientation or delays due to these changes could impact participation in a hotly contested presidential election year.

MAXINE WATERS IS WORRIED

"I am extremely concerned about the lack of information that has been shared with L.A. County residents, which could lead to confusion for members of our community on election day," Congresswoman Maxine Waters said in a statement this week.


Get all the info you need for the 2020 primary, including WHERE and HOW to vote with KPCC + LAist's Voter Game Plan


Waters has been holding town halls with the Los Angeles County Registrar, Dean Logan, to explain the overhaul to constituents. She called the voting changes "straightforward." Nevertheless, she also said: "I remain incredibly worried about the lack of awareness and outreach in our community."

The county has invested in an advertising blitz to let voters know where and how to cast their ballots.

"We greatly appreciate Congresswoman Waters' efforts to engage and inform the public about the new voting model and to encourage participation in the election," said Registrar Logan in an email to LAist. "We are managing a major multi-media outreach and education campaign in addition to multiple mailings to voters regarding when and where to vote and how the new system works."

That campaign includes 250 billboards, radio and TV commercials in multiple languages, ads on streaming music and video platforms, millions of social impressions, and 72 print ads in 18 newspapers.

Is anyone paying attention? That won't be clear until in-person voting starts Feb. 22.

WHAT IS VOTING LIKE NOW?

Many voters who have tried the new L.A. County system say they like the ballot marking devices and electronic poll books.

In a brightly lit basketball gym at Salazar Park in East L.A. last fall, Mercedes Serrano test-drove one of the tablet computers nestled in a cheery yellow booth, tucked between headphones and large tactile buttons.

"It's pretty awesome. Everything there on the screen," she said. "It was really easy to read and easy to follow."

First, a county poll worker dialed up Serrano's information on new digital "e- pollbook." (Paper voter rolls are now a thing of the past, like the retro InkaVote technology that the new voting machines are replacing.) The election worker confirmed Serrano's address and printed a custom ballot specific to her precinct.

Serrano walked the fresh ballot over to a machine, inserted it into a slot and began making selections on the touchscreen.

Next, "it lets you review it at the end onscreen and then it prints it out for you again," she explained. After looking things over, "you insert [the ballot] back into the machine and you're done."

While they prepped for the future, some voters who attended the September mock election shared wistful memories of their low-tech neighborhood polling places.

Yesenia Zambrano (and her canine pal Eevee) try out L.A. County's new ballot marking machines during the September 28, 2019 mock election at Salazar Park in East L.A. (Al Kamalizad for LAist)

"I will miss the old way, but change isn't bad," said Yesenia Zambrano. "It's okay."

Learning the ropes of this brand-new technology is just one of a heap of challenges Los Angeles voters are facing this primary season.

DON'T VOTE ON AUTO-PILOT

Another big shift: This election, most Angelenos won't be able to cast a ballot at their usual spot. Close to 5,000 idiosyncratic neighborhood polling places — garages, libraries, churches, living rooms — are being consolidated down to over 900 "vote centers" that offer more hours and more support. Vote centers will be open up to 11 days (the majority are available for 4 days) and voters can go to any location in the county where they're registered. The registrar's office announced where the centers would be late last month, about four weeks before in-person voting was set to begin.

It's a significant behavioral adjustment for millions of L.A. voters — who've historically voted more in-person than by mail. That could change in 2020. The county is expecting over 60 percent of voters to mail-in ballots this year, a big jump.

Many candidates, like Mike Garcia, who's running for Congress as a Republican in North L.A. County, are worried voters will show up on election day to an empty community center or school gym where they usually vote and won't know where to go.

"That's what's keeping me up at night," Garcia said. His 25th district race has the added hurdle of a special election, requiring voters to cast two votes for their preferred candidate.

Garcia says he and his campaign aren't just spending time winning over voters' support — they also have to explain the mechanics of the new system.

Adding to that, a calendar switcheroo: the Golden state bumped up voting this year in a bid for electoral relevance. "The primary itself is now three months earlier," Garcia said. "So it's a six-lane memorial highway dedicated to confusion."

CA-25 Republican congressional candidate Mike Garcia (left) talks to a voter after a debate at the Republican Values Center in Simi Valley on Feb. 8 2020. (Libby Denkmann/LAist)

The shift to vote centers is the result of a 2016 law called the Voter's Choice Act, which has been implemented in five counties so far, yielding a small (3-4 percent) boost in turnout. In those counties, every registered voter now receives a ballot in the mail.

But Los Angeles County has a one-time exemption from that requirement, putting more pressure on Angelenos' in-the-flesh voting experience.

A 'MILESTONE...FOR DEMOCRACY'

The new voting technology was born from an ambitious goal. The county spent close to a decade designing and building the first publicly owned voting system in the country — accessible to everyone — no matter their language or disability barriers.

The resulting ballot marking devices are the brainchild of Logan and his team. According to Logan, there was no product like this available on the voting equipment market, which is dominated by three private vendors — so L.A. had to create its own, from scratch.

Logan says the system has gone through multiple rounds of testing and real-world trials. And despite the high-tech interface, the fundamentals are the same.

"It is still a voter-marked paper ballot. This device is not retaining your voter choices, it's not tabulating your votes," Logan said. "It's just allowing you to mark the ballot in a way that's clear. For tabulation, the printed ballot is the official ballot."

Not everyone is confident in the new machines. Some security experts are concerned about independent test results showing vulnerabilities, and there is a vocal contingent of election advocates who believe the only way to safeguard voting is by requiring hand-marked paper ballots whenever possible.

In January, Beverly Hills sued over how candidates' names show up on the digital ballots, arguing the interface makes it too easy for voters to accidentally skip ahead and miss candidates who aren't listed near the top. That won't have an effect on the primary, but the lawsuit is scheduled for a hearing in May.

CERTIFIED WITH CAVEATS

Last month, the state certified the new voting system. Secretary of State Padilla sang its praises, calling it "A huge milestone not just for Los Angeles County but for Democracy."

But Padilla also added a stack of conditions the county must meet before voters start using the new machines. That includes smoothing out paper jams that could slow down and frustrate voters, tightening security flaws that popped up in testing and better training election workers to guide voters through the process.

Padilla also insisted voters be given the option to hand-mark ballots when vote centers open later this month.

Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, says she's hoping for the best, because the stakes are high. In a "supersized" county like L.A., "Those problems take on a much bigger scale," Alexander said.

Alexander pointed out that if voters take advantage of the new, expanded in-person voting period, that could alleviate strain caused by possible election day delays, like lines forming while voters learn how to use the ballot marking devices.

"We need to be encouraging people to vote early—not to wait until the last minute," Alexander said.

Registrar-Recorder Logan says he's confident the voting upgrades will improve elections in Los Angeles. The vote centers offer "More Days, More Ways" to cast a ballot (a slogan for the new system), and ballot marking devices are a game-changer for voters with disability barriers who have been left behind by other voting technology.

WE'RE NOT DONE YET

One more note about voting changes:

This year, Los Angeles County ballots show national and local races in reverse order, so presidential candidates will appear last. It's part of a pilot program to try to increase participation in down-ballot races.

If successful, it could expand outside of L.A. County to the rest of California.