Voting on Los Angeles’ new machines was a mess

Trying to cast a Super Tuesday vote in Los Angeles County was a frustrating experience. 

Los Angeles County debuted a new electronic voting system for this primary race — one that took nine years and $300 million to build. The touchscreen-based system was supposed to increase accessibility and make voting more convenient, since polling place workers could confirm voter registration by looking it up on an iPad. Under the new system, voters could also vote at any voting center in Los Angeles County, rather than at predetermined neighborhood precincts. The new systems are also more accessible, as it includes 12 languages other than English and accommodations for physical impairments. Los Angeles County makes up the largest voting bloc in California, the Los Angeles Times reports

But implementing a new system for all 5.5 million voters came with some significant stumbling. 

I walked into my local polling place at 8:00 a.m. on Super Tuesday empowered by my brand new California driver’s license, which arrived in my mailbox a day before I cast my vote. Until then, I had only voted via absentee ballot in my home state because I assumed I’d move back. January 2020 sealed two years of living in Los Angeles full time, so I figured I’d start engaging with my new-but-not-that-new home’s local elections.  

Voting on Los Angeles' new machines was a mess

Image: MARK RALSTON / AFP via Getty Images

I registered to vote in Los Angeles on Feb. 10, eight days before the cutoff to vote in Tuesday’s primary elections. My sample ballot and voter guide arrived in the mail a week before the election. According to the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder County Clerk, my registration status is active and I’m eligible to vote in the 2020 primary. 

But troubles started as soon as I tried to check in. After spelling out my name and date of birth three times, the polling worker told me she was unable to confirm my registration on the iPad she was manning. 

After some back and forth, another polling worker on a separate iPad was able to confirm my registration. Relieved to vote, I filled in my ballot at the machine and printed it out. Then, I fed it back into the machine so it could be placed in the secure ballot box. 

The machine, though, wouldn’t accept my ballot. Instead of dropping it into the ballot box, it kept spitting out my printed ballot. After three tries a polling worker handed me a pink provisional ballot envelope and told me it would have to be counted later. 

I wasn’t the only one who had a frustrating voting experience with the new machines. 

Other voters complained about technical difficulties that forced them to cast provisional ballots, which would be counted after county election officials confirm their eligibility. California State University, Northridge professor Kristina Meshelski tweeted about the iPad syncing issues at her voting center. 

Twitch streamer Michael Groth, who’s part of the streaming duo MandJTV, also tweeted about voting via provisional ballot. He said that the polling worker who checked him in noted nobody who had registered “in the past six months” was in the electronic database of registered voters. 

And comedian Kathy Griffin tweeted about how she wasn’t registered in the right district, so she wasn’t able to vote for the local representatives she wanted to support. 

Attorney and election security advocate Jennifer Cohn aggregated a thread of frustrations voters are voicing on Twitter. Rep. Ted Lieu, who’s running for reelection, noted that his name doesn’t appear on the ballot unless voters hit “more,” and it’s possible to skip to the next race without even knowing there are more candidates. 

Thanks to broken machines in East L.A., residents had to vote via provisional ballots. Twitter users complained that the informational machine guides distributed to voters failed to mention that they had to reinsert the ballot into the machine to submit it. 

It’s a mess. Should we be worried? 

It’s easy to jump to conclusions and assume that the issues voters are running into are part of some grand scheme to disenfranchise the voices of the people. Maurice Turner, Deputy Director of the Internet Architecture Project at the Center for Democracy and Technology, has a more realistic explanation: It’s a new system, and there will be kinks that need to be smoothed out. 

“There doesn’t seem to be any sign of malicious interference, or any sort of wild conspiracy theory,” he said in a phone call to Mashable. “I definitely think voters should be confident their vote will count.” 

He is concerned, however, about how long the lines are getting. Growing wait times may discourage Los Angeles County residents from voting at all. Some on Twitter worried that particularly long lines are hitting underserved, low-income, communities of color the worst. Turner, though, assured me that it’s more because of unforeseen technical malfunctions than blatant voter suppression. 

“A lot of consideration was put into where to put voting centers, and the assumption was made that a certain number of the ballot marking devices would be functional,” he explained. “And because the malfunctions are happening, the lines are backing up longer than would be expected.” 

While Turner applauds the county election officials for being responsive to questions and concerns on social media, he advises frustrated voters to seek out less crowded polling places if possible. He also noted that provisional ballots would be counted in California, if they’re eligible. If you, like me, are simply a ball of anxious flesh, you can check on the status of your ballot by calling your county election officials. 

Complaints aside, there’s a chance that this is the future of voting. 

Los Angeles County said the voting software and hardware would be open-source, so that other jurisdictions could use “some or all” of the elements used on Tuesday. If needed, they could modify it to “suit their own needs,” Turner said. The United States as a whole is struggling to modernize the voting process, and Los Angeles County is only part of the problem. 

Hopefully future attempts at maintaining democracy will be less of a shitshow. 

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