The Scramble To Fix Los Angeles Voting Before November (And What Went Wrong)
Los Angeles County's new voting system is supposed to make elections more accessible.
But on Tuesday, many voters found casting a ballot to be anything but easy. At L.A. County's new in-person voting locations, many people faced long wait times — sometimes in excess of three hours — caused by technical problems that marred the system's debut.
Late Tuesday, the county's top elections official apologized. On Wednesday, L.A. County Supervisor Janice Hahn called for an investigation.
"Some hiccups are to be expected with a new system," said Hahn in a statement, "but there were widespread reports of problems."
"These issues," Hahn added, "need to be fixed before this November."
The snafu prompted California's Secretary of State to issue a stern statement Thursday: "In Los Angeles County, too many voters faced unacceptably long wait times," Secretary of State Alex Padilla said. "Voters who waited patiently for hours deserve our praise for their commitment to democracy. Voters deserve better."
Padilla said Los Angeles County should mail a ballot to every registered voter, and address staffing, logistical, training and equipment issues that bogged down voting in the country's largest jurisdiction on Super Tuesday.
New: CA Secretary of State Alex Padilla @CASOSvote is calling on Los Angeles to mail a ballot to every voter for the November election, and fix vote center issues: support, training, and technology problems that caused hours-long long lines to vote Tues.— Libby Denkmann (@libdenk) March 5, 2020
"Voters deserve better." pic.twitter.com/UeYdgEjhR1
State Senator Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica), one of the authors of the Voter's Choice Act — the law that's ushered in massive changes to the voting system in 15 California counties so far — also weighed in.
I plan to introduce legislation requiring @CountyofLA to send #voters ballots by mail and/or providing more vote centers on #ElectionDay2020. It will make for a much better experience for voters and ensure that no one is discouraged from voting because of lines or delays. pic.twitter.com/LABVhAvHDH— Ben Allen (@BenAllenCA) March 5, 2020
SO WHAT WENT WRONG ON ELECTION DAY?
Let's break down what we know so far...
ABOUT THE ELECTRONIC CHECK-IN STATIONS
Remember how in elections past, you signed your name — probably upside-down — in a giant white book that confirmed you lived where you were registered?
L.A. County's new system tossed those old paper rosters. Instead, election workers now check in voters electronically, on iPads that are connected to a database of registered voters.
This change was huge. It allows voters to check in at any one of 979 "vote centers" to cast a ballot. Even if that location isn't close to where a voter lives, the system still prints a ballot with the races from their home precinct. (It's also designed to prevent anyone from voting twice, because the database is regularly updated.)
But L.A. County Registrar-Recorder Dean Logan said this process proved to be a choke point when hundreds of thousands of Angelenos showed up to vote on Tuesday. Many of the electronic poll books had problems with connectivity, Logan said, and this slowed the flow of voters.
ABOUT THE STATE'S VOTER DATABASE
What types of "connectivity" problems did these check-in devices experience? We still don't know exactly.
It's not clear if there was a problem with the iPads themselves — or if slowdowns were related to internet connections in some buildings that hosted the vote centers. California has regulations on the books requiring any electronic poll books that are connected to wi-fi to have secure, dedicated wireless access points.
Also, California has a statewide database of registered voters, finished in 2016, called VoteCal, that encountered some problems in other counties on Tuesday.
Padilla's office said in an email that 15 counties "had connectivity issues" with the database — but that Los Angeles was not among the affected counties.
ABOUT THE NEW TOUCHSCREEN VOTING MACHINES
Tuesday night marked the first election for L.A. County's new "ballot-marking devices," voting booths each fitted with its own touchscreen, headphones, printer and ballot container. These devices were key features in the county's big overhaul of how and where Angelenos vote.
In general, Logan said the ballot-marking machines performed well, once people could get to them.
On Twitter, the CEO of Smartmatic — the vendor that built the new ballot-marking devices — highlighted the ambitiousness of L.A. County's election plans.
"Only those initiated in the elections path," wrote the CEO, Antonio Mugica, "know how difficult it is to pull the biggest revamp in US election history."
two new voting technology systems -BMDs and new ePollBooks. All of this in the largest and most complex jurisdiction in the US!! - Long lines in some centers, sure. Areas of improvement, absolutely. - But I don't know anyone that could have pulled this off on the first try!— Antonio Mugica (@antoniomugica) March 4, 2020
But there were also widespread reports of paper jams and other unexplained technical problems. Many in KPCC's and LAist's audiences reported machines were "out of order," contributing to wait times at their vote centers.
A spokesperson with the L.A. County Registrar's office estimated earlier Tuesday that about 20% of the machines were not in service.
Some of this could be due to election worker error: the ballot marking devices were, after all, brand new. It's also possible that poll workers were not adequately trained on the new technology, adding to wait times.
But people who did get in to vote had positive things to say: KPCC/LAist heard from many voters in Los Angeles who had a good experience with the new ballot-marking devices.
ABOUT THE NEW VOTING LOCATIONS
This primary marked the first time that voters could cast a ballot at any of the 979 vote centers in L.A. County. But predicting which vote center a resident would choose proved difficult.
Reports of long wait times at downtown locations, as well as on college campuses — where volunteers sent pizzas to students waiting in line — suggest that there weren't enough staff or equipment at the vote centers with the highest demand.
Logan said his office plans to review the locations. The centers, he said, "were not as evenly distributed as one might desire."
The idea of the new vote centers, part of the Voter's Choice Act, is to make it easier for people to vote: Many opened 10 days before Election Day; others opened last weekend. Half a dozen were open overnight between Monday and Tuesday.
But these consolidated vote centers replaced roughly 4,800 neighborhood polling places. And not everyone may have known where the new locations were: vote center locations were only announced to the public a little over a month ago.
WHAT OTHER ISSUES MAY HAVE CONTRIBUTED TO LONG WAIT TIMES?
- Same-day changes. State law now allows same-day voter registration at all polling places and the ability to switch your political party on Election Day. No Party Preference voters also had the option to ask for a crossover ballot to vote in the Democratic primary — all of which could add to the time it takes to check-in and process voters.
- Few people voted early. The idea of an 11 day voting period is great — if enough people take advantage of it. But many vote centers were virtually empty during early voting. County Supervisor Janice Hahn told KPCC/LAist that county officials should have foreseen that few people would vote early, leading to a rush on election day. "We should've been prepared to have more people vote yesterday," Hahn said.
Californians had good reason to wait to cast their ballots — three major candidates dropped out of the race by the time Super Tuesday happened.
Reporters Caroline Champlin and Kyle Stokes contributed to this report.