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County promises shorter lines for November voting

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles County will use new technology to help voters track wait times and speed check-in at polls this November, in addition to sending vote-by-mail ballots to every registered voter in hopes of limiting the potential spread of COVID-19, officials said June 19.

An independent review of the March primary election released by the county found a range of problems including software breakdowns, lack of trained staff and insufficient oversight of outside vendors contributed to wait times that left long lines of voters waiting to cast their ballots after polls had closed.

The county’s Voting Solutions for All People system was developed over the course of a decade and described in the Board of Supervisors-commissioned report as a “highly ambitious project that dramatically changed the experience of voting in the nation’s most populous county.”

The new system, used for the first time in March, relied on touch-screen voting and a shift from neighborhood polling places to a smaller number of larger vote centers. Voters were allowed to cast ballots at any center and the voting period was extended to 11 days.

The designers of the system expected that residents would take advantage of that flexibility, but ultimately found that the vast majority of them waited until Election Day to cast their ballots.

Despite hours-long wait times for many voters, the new system received high marks from a majority of those who cast ballots, according to Slalom, LLC, the Seattle-based business and technology consulting firm that conducted the review. The firm surveyed 250 voters and interviewed 50 poll workers and other interested parties to reach that conclusion.

The new technology for checking in voters frequently froze on Election Day, creating bottlenecks before voters even had a chance to try out the new touch screens.

“Design and testing issues with the voter check-in technology caused the system to freeze frequently, resulting in long delays and bottlenecks during check-in at vote centers,” the report found.

As a result, election workers had to provide provisional ballots to many voters, an extra step that requires those counting the votes to validate them.

There were also shortages of electronic poll books and poll workers and insufficient staff and technology to respond to the heavy demand by poll workers for technical assistance.

In addition to the Slalom report, the board asked the Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk to conduct its own investigation. That department’s internal report identified a series of improvements underway in advance of the November election and said it is collaborating with the secretary of state and getting input from numerous community members in implementing those changes.

The two reports came to similar conclusions about the causes of the delays, however Slalom made some additional recommendations for changes, including earlier staff recruitment and selection of vote center sites, more testing of electronic equipment in advance and enhanced training for technical staff as well as poll workers. The consulting firm also recommended enlisting professional assistance in developing better voter information campaigns to educate residents about how the system works.

“With improved vote center staffing approaches and training, increased technology capacity, more effective communications and outreach and stronger vendor management, Los Angeles County can enhance the voter experience and election systems for November 2020 and beyond,” the report concluded.

For the November election, every registered voter will be sent a vote-by-mail ballot, a move due in part to concerns about crowded vote centers and the potential spread of COVID-19. However, voting centers are still expected to be open — and large enough to accommodate social distancing — for voters who prefer to cast a ballot in person.

More electronic poll books will be available at each center and will include new, streamlined voter look-up features, according to the county.

Voters will also be given access to new tools to track wait times at various centers to identify locations with shorter lines.

A summary of Slalom’s findings and recommendations can be found at ceo.lacounty.gov. A copy of the Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk’s report and recommendations can be found at lavote.net/docs/rrcc/board-corresponde/VSAP-Board-Report.pdf.

Wave Wire Services