By Nathan Solis
LOS ANGELES (CN) – Just weeks before health orders effectively shut down the nation due to the novel coronavirus, Los Angeles County voters waited for hours to cast their vote in the March primary election.
What should have been the public introduction of a new $300 million voting system turned into a public stumble.
An independent review of the election system released Friday details issues with computer tablets used to check-in voters at polling places, improperly trained staff and poor communication.
The ePollbook, an iPad-like tablet meant to check-in voters, was unable to sync with the county’s voter database, according to a summary of the independent report.
The county announced the findings of the independent review on Friday, but the summary released to the public is dated from earlier in the month. A spokesperson said the county would not release the full document to the public because the report “contains confidential information prepared for the Board of Supervisors and intended to safeguard and improve the voting system and the technology that supports it.”
This past March, L.A. County voters had more than a week to cast their ballots at multiple voting centers during the primary election. According to county officials, over 70% of voters cast their ballots in person at a polling place.
The $300 million Voting Solutions For All People 2.0 voting system was in development for over a decade and was meant to bring L.A. County out of the 1960s and into the modern era.
Instead, the ePollbook system was not tested to meet the needs of the county’s size, according to the independent report summary.
Election officials highlighted new touch-screen ballot stations and an app that allowed voters to make their selections on their phones and upload their ballot at the stations.
On March 3, many voters were greeted by long lines and waited for hours to cast their vote. A 135-page internal report released this past April by the county registrar’s office said the bottleneck was due to the tablets, and 15% of voters said they waited more than two hours to cast their ballot.
L.A. County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk Dean Logan “acknowledges that not all voters were properly supported on Election Day, resulting in long waits and great frustration for many voters,” according to the internal report.
The registrar’s office declined to comment on the findings of the independent report and directed all questions to a county communications official.
Multiple attempts for comment were made over three days from the registrar’s office and all five county supervisors declined to comment on the report’s findings. Instead, a county spokesperson said “The County is in the process of implementing all the recommendations and action items in the Registrar’s report back to the Board in April as well as additional recommendations from the independent report released today, June 19.”
Sylvia Boyadzhyan with the county CEO’s office said there would be no one available for an interview on the report’s findings.
Senior adviser on election security Susan Greenhalgh with the nonpartisan Free Speech For People cannot comprehend how a new system tailored made for LA County could have stumbled on election day.
“The ePollbooks couldn’t find the voters in the county’s own register database? That’s its main job,” Greenhalgh said in an interview. “How did it not do its main job properly?”
The internal county report, first reported by Politico, says some polling places were overstaffed while others were understaffed. Changes with polling places due to the new voting system meant new protocols for election workers, but many polling sites were overwhelmed on Election Day and helplines setup to answer IT questions couldn’t meet the demand, according to the internal report.
Provisional ballots were handed to some voters, while Free Speech For People published a letter to LA County this past January warning that the county’s voting system had major security flaws. Yet the system was still given the green light to be used in the March primary by the California Secretary of State Office.
One of the chief concerns during testing was paper jams at the touch-screen ballot stations due to printing gears. The internal report says third-party vendor Smartmatic will replace tens of thousands of printing gears, hire another vendor to provide IT support and optimize the computer tablets so they can better communicate with the county’s voter network.
Greenhalgh says it’s too little, too late and the county should not continue working with the same vendor.
“Why on earth are we trusting these people to fix these problems when they’re incapable of fixing the system for L.A. County?” Greenhalgh said. “The county should get their money back and Dean Logan should resign.”
Voting in November will be much different due to the Covid-19 pandemic. California Gov. Gavin Newsom recently signed into law a bill that will send all registered voters in the Golden State a paper ballot.
Chief Public Policy Officer Rosalind Gold with the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) said what happened in March in LA County cannot happen again in November.
“In light of the pandemic, we are really going to need really robust voter education from the county about the many options that are available to cast ballots,” said Gold. “Not only can voters use vote by mail, but where their in-person voting locations are and what health protocols are going to be in place.”
The independent report summary from Slalom Consulting says LA County should work with a professional consulting firm to develop a strategy for reaching key demographics and learning more about voter behavior. The report summary does not specify which demographics should be reached as part of those efforts.
For voters whose first language is not English they may prefer to vote in-person so they can speak to a person if they have any questions said Gold. Most importantly, those voters will need to have confidence in the voting system.
“Those voters are going to need reassurances,” said Gold on Latino voters. “Because we don’t have updated research on the pandemic and its impact on Latino voters and their habits.”
League of Women Voters Los Angeles County president Fatima Malik says members are positive the changes proposed by the county registrar’s office will be implemented.
“While it may not be perfect, it will be a lot better than what I saw back in March,” Malik said.
Margo Reeg, League of Women Voter vote organizer, said the confidence is still there in the process.
“We are going to encourage the public to weigh all their voting options. The new system made it easier, it just was something they have to work out,” Reeg said.
To view the Summary of Findings from the Independent Assessment of the March 2020 Primary Election Issues, see below:
[Open .pdf in new window]
To view the internal report released this past April by the county registrar’s office, see below:
[Open .pdf in new window]