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Beverly Hills Might Sue Over LA County's New Voting Machine Design

One of L.A. County's new voting machines displaying "mock election" options. (Kyle Grillot for LAist)
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The Beverly Hills City Council has voted to move ahead with a possible lawsuit against election officials responsible for the new Los Angeles County voting equipment which will debut in the March 3 primary.

The new machines are digital, and there are concerns that voters will vote without seeing all the candidates.

Already there are huge changes in store for Angelenos voting in-person when vote centers start opening Feb. 22 -- from where and when to vote to a new, high-tech way to cast a ballot.

Electronic ballot marking devices developed by Los Angeles County will be the default option in all 1,000 new vote centers, replacing the familiar old InkaVote System. The new devices include touch screens to mark voter selections, which are then printed onto a paper ballot that will be collected and tallied by election officials.

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Now, with voting fast approaching, local governments and campaigns are familiarizing themselves with the new system. And many don't like what they see.

March 3 will be the first time Beverly Hills syncs up its city council elections with statewide races in even-numbered years -- 2020 being such a year -- to comply with a recent law aimed at boosting voter participation in local contests.

Councilmember Julian Gold, who's running for re-election, says the way the tablet computers on L.A.'s new devices display candidates in each race is "flawed" and could potentially change the outcome of important elections.

He and fellow city officials and staff got a preview of the ballot marking machines when the Beverly Hills City Clerk showed them photos a few weeks ago.

The issue? When a race appears on the ballot marking devices, only the first four candidates fit on the first screen. To see more choices, a voter has to hit a button marked "MORE" to choose from the next four contenders.

"But there's also a button that says 'NEXT,'" Gold said. "And if you hit 'NEXT' instead of 'MORE,' you're done, you move on to the next race." He called this a design flaw because a voter can skip ahead in the ballot without seeing the full list of candidates.

L.A.'s Registrar Recorder's office tweaked the visibility of the "more" button after feedback from a series of mock elections last fall.

The county added a pulsating yellow ring around "MORE" and a gradient effect to draw attention to the candidate options further down the ballot, and plans to hang signage and train election workers to inform voters.

"The data from the Pilot Election are compelling evidence that voters recognize and respond to the "MORE" button utility," Dean Logan, L.A.'s Registrar-Recorder, said in a Dec. 19 report to the L.A. County Board of Supervisors.

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Gold, an anesthesiologist first elected to the Beverly Hills city council in 2011, says the setup still clearly disadvantages anyone listed after the first four candidates on the ballot. His name is fifth -- based on a random drawing -- but he says the issue is bigger than his own reelection bid.

"What if the frontrunners in the presidential race are not on the first page?" He said. "The county spent a fortune on this system and they missed this simple thing."

On January 9, the three members of the Beverly Hills City Council who are not running for reelection voted to file a lawsuit against Los Angeles County and the Secretary of State, "if we have to," according to Gold.

He added that other Los Angeles County cities and city organizations are also exploring legal options. "This just doesn't work," he said.

The California Secretary of State's office declined to comment, citing the fact that the new voting system in L.A. is still in the process of state certification, and a policy of not commenting on pending litigation.

[9:35 AM Wednesday: This story was updated with a response from the Secretary of State.]

LAist has also reached out to the L.A. County Registrar-Recorder's office for comment.