Work to redesign the process of how residents vote in Los Angeles County, the largest local election jurisdiction in the U.S., is entering a critical but transformational stage after eight years of research and conceptualization.
The county’s Voting Systems Assessment Project (VSAP), which began in 2009 at Caltech essentially as a research project, has been in design for the past three years. But in October, officials signed an agreement with technology researcher and adviser Gartner Inc. to do a sourcing strategy and readiness assessment over a five-month period.
Gartner finished its preliminary work at the end of 2016 and should begin reaching out to members of the IT community during the next few weeks to get feedback, likely finishing its assessment by the end of February.
On Wednesday, the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government announced VSAP is one of 100 semifinalists in this year's Innovations in American Government Awards competition. The project will now compete to be named a finalist and for a chance at the $100,000 grand prize, to be awarded this spring.
By early to mid-summer 2017, Los Angeles County hopes to have an RFP ready for vendors. The agency’s goal is to do some form of piloting of the new voting model during the 2018 midterm elections.
But what will balloting look like for future voters, and how will contractors create what’s being referred to as a new “voting experience”?
Officials hope the result will expand what it means to vote in sprawling Los Angeles County, which covers nearly 4,800 square miles and is pushing 10 million people in population, but where elections still rely on card readers that are a variation of IBM equipment introduced in 1968. The county has spent around $15.5 million to date on the effort.
“There’s really three major components to the voting experience. But it’s premised on a philosophy of meeting voters where they’re at. Having the voting experience be available and relevant,” said Dean Logan, Los Angeles County registrar-recorder/county clerk.
In September, Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 450, which is aimed at modernizing how residents vote statewide — ultimately replacing polling places with vote centers and letting voters cast their ballots at any center in their county rather than a single polling location. Vote centers will be multifunctional, letting residents vote in person, drop off completed ballots, get replacement ballots, use accessible voting machines, and get language assistance and translated materials.
Redesigning Los Angeles County voting is somewhat similar in this regard and will mean:
1. Moving away from a single polling place for each voter to a voting period during which voters would have their choice of voting centers throughout the county. Early voting centers and expanded hours were a huge attraction last year. In L.A. County, early voting has more than tripled from 15,491 early ballots cast in 2012 to 48,708 in 2016.
2. Redesigning and improving in-person and the increasingly popular vote-by-mail (VBM) processes. Residents cast nearly 1.3 million VBM ballots in 2016, up from almost 976,000 in 2012 — an increase of nearly 32 percent.
The county is working with experts to redesign voting correspondence to make it more compelling and easier to read — examining everything from the color of documents to type size and font and the placement of voting instructions.
As for the new in-person balloting system, Logan said it’s envisioned as a ballot-marking device, not a vote tabulation device. Voters will use a touchscreen to produce a paper, human-readable ballot that captures their selections in shortened form. Completed ballots will then be tabulated on a separate system without having to reproduce the ballot in its entirety.
“You literally can complete that process without touching the ballot. But you as a voter see that it’s produced,” Logan said.
In-person ballots, like their VBM cousins, will also get a redesign. And on the back end, the county plans a micro-tally solution built on an open source stack that's capable of scanning and managing ballot images to make them more manageable from a big data perspective.
California is an anonymous ballot state, so voters’ identities will continue to be masked, and neither its voting nor tabulating systems are connected to the Internet.
3. Creating an interactive sample ballot, for voters to “premark” their choices electronically, then bring their results on a smartphone or tablet to the voting center and use them to prepopulate the actual ballot. Voters should also be able to print a poll pass and scan it at their polling place to prepopulate their ballots.
It’s unclear exactly what software choices the architects will use. Examples mentioned in a recent county PowerPoint ranged from .NET to Linux, but the goal is something that will adapt to various platforms and situations, while giving Los Angeles County a product of its own, but which other jurisdictions might also use. In other words: an open source platform.
“That gives the county the ability to own the system on behalf of the public. Public ownership is one of the key principles of the project itself,” said Jeramy Gray, the county’s assistant registrar-recorder/county clerk. “We wanted to have the public ownership of the design and the ability to operate the system publicly so that if we need to go out and make an enhancement to the system or … go out to bid for additional units, that we wouldn’t be limited to one manufacturer.”
And how will officials know if their new system needs enhancing? They hope voters will tell them. “The supplement that we expect to learn a lot from over the years is voter behavior, and allow them to steer the evolution of the system itself,” Gray said.
The creation of that new system, of course, must come first. The county hired Gartner, Logan said, to do what amounts to a “marketing scan,” getting a sense of the market reaction, where to send the procurement document, and what kind of a document is appropriate. Depending upon what officials learn, the project could be covered with one RFP or by a series of RFPs, and could potentially be created by a contractor, or a contractor and subcontractors.
The county also hopes to learn from Gartner how well equipped it is in terms of employee classifications and facilities to hold elections with a new system in place. Its desire, Gray said, is not to become a market competitor but to successfully put a new system in place. And once it has been proven, to possibly partner with other jurisdictions interested in creating or updating their systems based on this model.
Nationwide, Logan pointed out, some counties rushed to market with new voting equipment and processes in the early 2000s using Help America Vote Act funds — draining monies with solutions that in some cases proved to have technical deficiencies and not be fully formed.
Los Angeles County, both men agreed, doesn’t want that to happen. Not only is it working with Gartner, but the agency also plans to hold an orientation day for potential vendors within the next few months to explain its vision of the future voting experience and the new system's value.
“We don’t want to send something out and say, ‘We’re not ready to go.’ We want to do something that’s inclusive but also expands the market options,” Logan said.
Theo Douglas is a staff writer for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes covering municipal, county and state governments, business and breaking news. He has a Bachelor's degree in Newspaper Journalism and a Master's in History, both from California State University, Long Beach.