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County to hire consultant to examine voting problems

LOS ANGELES — Reacting to hours-long waits and a host of other challenges to voting during the March primary election, the county Board of Supervisors voted March 10 to hire an independent consultant to help troubleshoot.

Supervisor Janice Hahn initiated the motion calling for a review of the county’s revamped voting system.

“We have to figure out how to fix this and to restore confidence … before November,” Hahn said.

Addressing Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk Dean Logan, Hahn ran through a laundry list of complaints, including electronic poll books that didn’t sync properly, broken voting machines, centers without paper ballot supplies and poorly trained voting center workers putting in 12 to 18 hours of work on election day.

“A lot went wrong,” Hahn said.

Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who has supported Logan in the past, co-authored the motion and expressed her disappointment.

“It’s disheartening … because people feel like they’re disenfranchised,” she said.

Thousands of voters during the March 3 election were greeted with long lines at various vote centers across Los Angeles County. Some voters were still waiting in line past 11 p.m., more than three hours after the polls had technically closed.

State law requires that people be allowed to vote if they were in line prior to the polls closing.

Logan repeated an apology that he made on election night.

“I hear you and I hear the voices of our voters and our poll workers, and it was not the implementation we hoped it would be,” Logan said. “I regret that and I apologize to the voters who were impacted by that, and I apologize to the election workers who worked diligently under difficult circumstances and I apologize to your board.”

However, Logan also expressed confidence in the voting model and the new machines.

“I don’t think the answer is to give up on this. I think the answer is to get it right,” he told the board. “I believe that the voting model is a sound model and I believe that the system that we built … is also solid.”

Logan said long lines were caused by a bottleneck at check-in and syncing issues with the electronic poll records. That piece of equipment was a commercial off-the-shelf solution certified by the Secretary of State for use in California and similar problems were reported with the same equipment in St. Louis, according to Logan.

He agreed that workers lacked the necessary training, including to provide on-site fixes as problems arose. Many voting centers were too small or lacked cell connectivity needed for equipment. Same-day voter registration also taxed the system, he said.

“We now have data that we didn’t have before,” Logan said.

Logan told the board he ultimately wanted to give them a full and complete report — validated by others — on the technology, but said his preliminary review showed that issues with the voting machines did not affect residents’ ability to vote.

The board offered some suggestions of their own.

“I would double the number of places that people can vote,” Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said.

There were less than 1,000 voting centers open on election day, as compared with more than 4,500 polling places available during the last presidential primary election.

Hahn and Kuehl both suggested limiting the early voting days to four rather than 11, given that voters didn’t seem to take advantage of the longer lead time.

Hahn questioned whether the contract terms would allow the county to recoup some of the $300 million it spent on the new system.

“I feel like getting my money back,” Hahn told Logan.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas was more supportive, asking Logan about an exit poll of 3,600 voters at 50 voting centers conducted by Loyola Marymount University with apparently positive findings.

In response, Logan said the poll was the largest per capita exit poll in the nation and the results support his conviction that the model and equipment are sound.

The study from the Thomas and Dorothy Leavey Center for the Study of Los Angeles found that a majority of voters overwhelmingly approved of the new voting center experience.

Those who avoided afternoon and evening hours gave the new voting center model high marks. Ninety-three percent of voters who cast their ballots before 4 p.m. told researchers their experience at the voting center was “excellent” or “good.” That number fell to 83% among those who voted after 4 p.m.

Likewise, those who voted before 4 p.m. reported few of the long lines that troubled later voters, with just 11% waiting in line more than 20 minutes in the earlier part of the day, compared to 30% of those who voted after 4 p.m.

“Though we’ve seen evidence of long lines and broken machines at some polling places, the vast majority of voters described their experience on Election Day in positive terms,” said Brianne Gilbert, associate director of the center. “The county still has work to do to resolve the issues that troubled voting centers, particularly those where wait times dragged on for hours. But we shouldn’t discount the positive feedback most voters provided.”

The results of the survey, conducted on March 3 at 50 voting centers across Los Angeles County, identified areas of success and concern for elections officials. For instance, more than half of in-person voters showed up at voting centers after 4 p.m., but that group had lower awareness of the early voting opportunities that began this year.

The Board of Supervisors directed the CEO to hire a consultant and Logan to report back in 45 days. Kuehl called for a faster response, but Hahn said she was more worried about accuracy than speed.

Logan said he would be working to regain the board’s confidence and noted that the county will be running elections in April, May and June.

“We have to move quickly,” Logan said.