Represent!

Politics, government and public life for Southern California

LA County developing a voting system for the digital age (Photos)

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Los Angeles County is re-inventing the nation's largest electoral system, which serves nearly 4 million registered voters. The goal is a more flexible, user-friendly system that county officials hope will increase turnout.

To design the system from scratch, county officials started in 2010 by surveying voters and stakeholder groups. They added observations from poll workers. The county registrar of voters also co-sponsored a design challenge on a crowdsourcing website that drew responses from all over.

Cansu Akarsu, a designer from Turkey, suggested a computer tablet that helps poll workers interact with disabled people to select the right voting method. A person could use the system to select polling place accommodations days in advance.

Tina Lee, a U.S.-based designer, suggests a tablet app that lets the voter decide the pace of the ballot display or the order in which contests would appear.

Some other suggestions included a van that travels to voters, voting kiosks at grocery stores, and a two-week voting period.

Longtime poll worker Katsy Chappell  knows what voters don't want.

"People come in and they're really riled up – 'I voted here last time!' and for some reason L.A. has moved the line across the street," Chappell said.

She says voters don't want to stand in line, baking in the sun. They don't want to vote in a chilly garage. They don't want to cast a provisional ballot because it won't be counted that day.

Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder Dean Logan oversees a system that dates from the late 1960s. The county still uses old IBM card-counting machines, part of a system that is nearing the end of its useful life. There's a limit to how much information county ballots can hold. And the system's programming language is obsolete.

"We're at the stage where we're taking all that raw data now and saying: 'Okay, now we've got to make that into something tangible,'" Logan said. "We've got to figure out what that's going to look like."

Why start from scratch? For starters, the few brands of voting machines on the market are too expensive and bulky to serve the county's 5,000 polling places. And the operating systems are hard to customize.

"There really is no existing voting system out on the market," Logan said. "It's a very limited market in the first place."

The county hired Bay Area design firm IDEO for $150,000 to sort through the crowd-sourced suggestions and identify workable options of what the voting process could look like.

Logan is fond of the "vote anywhere" ideas that were submitted.

"You might have multiple voting centers that any voter can go to and access their ballot," he said. "They might be able to scan that ballot and confirm that their choices were read correctly and deposit it into a ballot box and know that it will be tabulated."

Andrew Baranak, who designs accessible devices for injured soldiers and others at the Georgia Tech Research Institute, has been working with a design team on new voting systems. His idea is a voting tablet that could be used anywhere.

"This iPad would have enhancements made to it via external hardware that would allow it to be taken to people in a nursing home or assisted living facility where people can't get to the polls,"   Baranak said.

By translating ballot choices into a series of yes/no decisions that can be submitted using a single button, lever or other device, nearly any person with a disability can independently cast a secret ballot without assistance. But all voters benefit, Baranak said. 

"If I design for someone who has one arm and no vision, then someone who is completely able bodied should have no problem using this whatsoever," he said.

Recently, some of the nation's top experts in voting systems came to advise L.A. County on its replacement process. One of the current challenges is dealing with all of the paper ballots and vote-by-mail envelopes. Even if the county swaps its ink ballot marking system for some sort of digital system,  state law still requires that completed ballots be put onto some form of paper the voter can use to verify the votes were recorded correctly.

Then there are the audio machines – at least one per polling place – that help voters who have poor vision or difficulty reading or marking a ballot. Those might also be replaced in the new system.

Noel Runyan, who's blind, is an expert in voting systems and computer security. He's on the technical committee helping the registrar build the new system.

"I'm particularly impressed with the fact that Los Angeles County is really doing this right by starting from the bottom, and designing things from the beginning that need to be considered," Runyan said.

California designer David Smith suggested people vote from their smart phones. But even he has qualms about that idea.

"How do I as a U.S. citizen  feel about voting from my phone?" Smith said. "Is it easier, or is it such a low barrier to entry that it's not special anymore, that it becomes meaningless?"

And then there are all of the security issues any digital system must confront.

"It's a daunting project because its such a critical element of our governance structure," Logan said. "We can't take it lightly. We've seen what happens when you rush into technology solutions that aren't ready for prime time."

Logan has $60 million dollars to spend. If the project goes as planned, L.A. County voters will cast ballots on a new system as early as 2015.

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