How LA County is working to make voting faster, easier and more secure

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Retired high school teacher and Monrovia resident Stephen McCarthy is the kind of careful, consistent, responsible voter get-out-the-vote activists dream about.

“I have never missed an election going back to when I had to stamp a paper ballot in 1972, and I have never missed an election since,” Murphy told KCRW.

So you can imagine how McCarthy felt, when on primary election day in June, workers at his local polling place told him that both his name and his wife’s names weren’t on official voter rosters.

“I was appalled,” said McCarthy. “I was shocked. I was angry.”

McCarthy and his wife were allowed to vote using provisional ballots that get counted after the election, but it was a huge frustration for them. And the McCarthys weren’t the only voters having troubles on Election Day in June.

In all more than 118,000 names of registered voters in Los Angeles County didn’t appear on rosters in more than a third of all polling places.

It was a big blunder, and Dean Logan,  L.A. County’s top election top official, even contacted some voters personally to apologize, including Stephen McCarthy.

“He called me directly,” said McCarthy. “And he, I will be frank, groveled.”

Los Angeles County voter Stephen McCarthy outside of his Monrovia home. McCarthy says he’s never missed an election since 1972 and was outraged when his name and the name of his wife didn’t appear on official voter rosters in the June election. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Months later,  at the Registrar-Recorder’s office in Norwalk, Logan was still saying I’m sorry for the June election troubles.

“I always want to start by by apologizing to any voter that was inconvenienced, or whose voting experience was disrupted by that,” he said.

An investigation later found that voters’ names were tossed off the paper rosters when a computer software glitch made it look like they were too young to vote.

“The data got corrupted so their birthdates all went null,” said Logan.   

But the 118,000 names that went missing from the voter rosters in June wasn’t L.A. County’s only election problem. In the November 2016 presidential election there were complaints about broken voting machines, polling stations running out of ballots, and, yes, names missing from voter rosters.

In the 2008 primary election, there was the so called “double-bubble” problem. A confusing ballot required “no party preference” voters to fill in more areas of the ballot. When the ballots were only partially filled out, it’s believed to have possibly cost the votes of thousands of people.

Kim Alexander with the California Voter Foundation said that, when taken together, these incidents show a persistent pattern of problems in L.A. County’s election system.

“There have been in the last ten years major voting problems in L.A. County,” Alexander said, “resulting in people being routinely frustrated with the barriers that they’re facing at polling places trying to vote.”

She added that problems at the polls can put off some people from ever voting again. And they might even convince family and friends not to vote because the process is so frustrating.

“And what happens when people have those kinds of voting experiences is that they become like a cancer in the system,” said Alexander.  

L.A. County’s Dean Logan said no matter how meticulous the planning, election problems are, if not inevitable, at least understandable in the county. There are more than five million registered voters in the county and 5,000 polling places are open during countywide elections, making the logistics of voting here more complex than most states and many countries.

That’s why looking ahead to next month’s high profile election, Logan said he can’t guarantee there won’t be problems.

“Instead of promising a problem-free election,” he said, “I’d like to promise that we won’t turn people away. We are not going to send them away from that polling place without giving them the opportunity to cast a ballot.”

Los Angles County Registrar-Recorder Dean Logan. Logan oversees one of the largest and most complex election systems in the country, but it’s also been plagued by problems in recent years. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

But there are big changes coming to how L.A. County votes, changes which are supposed to solve past problems and finally bring elections in country’s most populous county into the 21st Century.

It’s called VSAP, or Voting Solutions for All People. 

Changes will begin this upcoming election, with new easier-to-understand vote-by-mail ballots. But VSAP’s big changes will happen in the 2020 elections.

One of the most noticeable differences is that L.A. County’s 5,000 polling stations will be gone. They’ll be replaced by 500-700 voting centers, with people being able to cast their ballots at any of them instead of the closest to their homes.

That’s the beauty of it,” said Logan. “If you live in Santa Monica to work in downtown L.A., you could go to a downtown L.A. vote center and still get your Santa Monica ballot.”

A single Election Day will also be a thing of the past, replaced by voting over an 11 day period, including weekends.

L.A. County’s InkaVote ballots will be gone in the 2020 elections, replaced by digital terminals. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

And when people do go to vote, there will be no more inking small ovals to make a selection. Instead, ballots will appear on digital terminals, with voters receiving a paper ballot print out. Voters will also be able to load sample ballots from their phones onto the terminals.

Under the hood, the system will be supported by new software that’s supposed to prevent mistakes.

To prepare voters for this bold new world of voting, Los Angeles County has already launched a multi-million dollar public outreach and education campaign.

But Dean Logan acknowledges that getting to a future of fast, convenient and easy voting will take a lot of hard work under intense scrutiny given past problems.

“Boy, if we’re going to make this kind of a change, we’ve got to be sure we do it right,” said Logan. 

Find out more about the company behind LA County’s election upgrade.