Politics

Can LA County solve America's voting problem?

ballots-received-laco.jpg
File photo of Los Angeles County ballots.

In a piece for Bloomberg Politics, the county of Los Angeles is getting credit for trying to fix the technology side of issue with the old-fashioned and embarrassing ways that the U.S. conducts elections. Here we're not talking about the politically motivated obstacles that local officials use to keep Americans, mostly minorities, from voting in some states. We're talking about the physical and technological issues with casting a ballot that depresses turnout, and then with having all votes counted accurately and honestly.

From the story:

Los Angeles County, the largest voting jurisdiction in the U.S., has hired IDEO, a design company with roots in Silicon Valley, to overhaul how it serves up democracy. IDEO has developed a touchscreen system that incorporates features familiar to voters used to scrolling and tapping. Election administrators across the country are closely watching the experiment. They want to know if L.A. can solve the problem of American voting. “For a long time people muttered that somebody should do something about this,” says Doug Chapin, who runs the University of Minnesota’s Program for Excellence in Election Administration. “What Los Angeles County is doing is just that.”


After the 2008 election drew record numbers to the polls, Dean Logan, L.A.’s top election official, decided it was time to replace the county’s obsolete machines, which are based on technology developed in the late 1960s. A nonprofit focused on helping disabled people vote connected him with IDEO, whose work includes creating Apple’s first mouse in 1980 and helping Bank of America use its website to encourage more savings in 2006. The county has signed two contracts with IDEO totaling $14.7 million. Logan has adopted IDEO’s philosophy and practices, such as keeping multicolored Post-it notes in his car for brainstorming sessions on the fly. “We wanted to focus on the voting experience,” he says. “We know if you have a bad experience the first time you vote, you have a lower chance of coming back.”

Design in the election world is driven by federal and state statutes. California code specifies that certain parts of the ballot be in “heavy-faced Gothic capital type not smaller than 30-point” and that voting boxes be “at least three-eighths of an inch square.” The regulations are supposed to create fairness, but the results “aren’t necessarily very usable,” says Chapin. “Los Angeles completely flipped that on its head. For them the unit of analysis, the polestar, was the voter.”

Los Angeles County has about 5 million registered voters, more than most states, and must print ballots in 11 languages, including Hindi, Khmer, and Tagalog. On any given election day, the county can print as many as 300 different ballots to cater to local races. And California’s ballots are long; in some years more than a dozen initiatives can be up for a vote alongside national, state, and local candidates, maxing out the number of questions that fit on the paper ballots.

IDEO studied voter behavior and found that, given California’s supersize ballots, people often arrive on Election Day with marked-up sample ballots. For those people, “voting is an exercise in transcription,” says Matt Adams, who’s leading the L.A. project. That prompted IDEO to create an interactive sample ballot voters can fill out on a computer or using a mobile app. When they go to vote, they can scan their code, like an airline boarding pass, from a paper printout or phone to automatically select their votes.

The prototype voting kiosk of the future uses a touch screen and is in the final design stages — Los Angeles County hopes to switch to the machines in time for the 2020 presidential election, the story says.

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