After the 2016 election, amid fears of foreign interference, the promise of Los Angeles’s grand experiment was even more enticing as states and counties scrambled to replace their aging election infrastructure with more secure options.
More than $280 million later, on the eve of the California primary, Los Angeles County’s Voting Solutions for All People system — a combination of mail-in ballots and new custom-made electronic voting machines — is being celebrated as a major step forward for voting accessibility. At the same time, though, it has been dogged by security concerns and allegations of a flawed ballot design, according to a government contracting firm that examined the system, advocates for election security and some local candidates.
A December report commissioned by the California Secretary of State’s office said the system did not meet several of the state’s cybersecurity and accessibility standards, which were to be “woven directly into the DNA” of the new system, according to the development contract.
As early voting began last week, more than two dozen polling locations opened hours or a full day late because of missing equipment and problems coordinating election workers.
Three Democratic state representatives, all running for reelection, released a statement Friday complaining that the ballot design gives some candidates an unfair advantage. The city of Beverly Hills sued the county last month for the same reason, alleging that the ballot design “threatens the integrity and accuracy of dozens of races” in the primaries.
“It’s a great concept, but it has a fatal flaw in that it does not provide the electorate with an objective view of the election,” Julian Gold, a Beverly Hills City Council member who will appear on the ballot, said in an interview.
The county’s registrar of voters, Dean Logan, said that the new system is a major improvement for the county’s more than 5 million registered voters and that the issues critics point to are to be expected.
“Given the time frame and the dynamics that we had to work under, I don’t think it’s particularly surprising or shocking,” said Logan, who has led the efforts to develop the voting system. “It’s an entirely new and innovative way to deploy a voting system, and it’s more complex and challenging than any other election jurisdiction in the country.”
Logan accused critics of reflexively attacking the system because it is new, adding that “that’s why we’ve been stuck for decades on the limited voting systems we have in this country.”
Under the new system, voters have two options: Mail-in ballots with prepaid postage are available on request. Alternatively, they can use new county-owned touch-screen machines at any of about 1,000 polling locations — not just their local precinct.
The machines feature oversized buttons and can be adjusted for people in wheelchairs. Voters can choose from 13 languages and listen through earphones if they have impaired vision or prefer audio. The machines — called ballot-marking devices — print out a paper record that voters can verify and then feed into a ballot box.
The system has also become a focal point for critics of ballot-marking devices, which have become far more common since 2016 but which many cybersecurity experts say are less secure than hand-marked paper ballots. Logan has pointed to digital safeguards for the L.A. County machines, including numerous rounds of cybersecurity testing and procedures to ensure the machines are not connected to the Internet.
California Secretary of State Alex Padilla last month certified the new system for use, but said the county must address some of the issues in the report it commissioned — some in time for Super Tuesday, and others before the general election. In response, the county has increased training for poll workers and voter education, and it has placed tamper-evident seals and protective covers on some equipment.
Padilla also required the county to provide a write-in paper ballot for voters who do not want to use the new machines and did not vote by mail. But those ballots do not list the candidates or the specific races, meaning voters must write all of their choices in by hand.
Advocacy groups such as the National Election Defense Coalition and Californians for Disability Rights have criticized his decision to certify the system. “It is improper to simply accept assurances from the County and its contractor(s) that the system has been brought into compliance and no new liabilities created,” they wrote in a recent letter to Padilla.
The letter was also signed by the California Clean Money Campaign, an advocacy group whose director, Trent Lange, is a Los Angeles County voter. Lange said he went to a polling location last week and asked the volunteer at the desk for the write-in paper ballot.
“Her supervisor overheard the conversation and said, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ve heard about those, but we never got any,’ ” Lange said. Lange said he sent volunteers to seven other polling locations across the county where workers appeared not to know about that option, either.
Told of those complaints, Michael Sanchez, a spokesman for the county, said, “I’m not sure what Mr. Lange experienced.”
In a statement to The Washington Post, Padilla said the voting system represents a “historic step forward for Los Angeles County voters and for the nation.”
“Los Angeles County had been using some of the oldest voting equipment in the state,” he said. “Moving to a more modern system provides greater accessibility to voters.”
Elsewhere in California, all registered voters automatically get a mail-in ballot without requesting one. For those who vote in person, most counties offer hand-marked paper ballots that list the candidates’ names or, for those who prefer them, a limited number of touch-screen machines.
Marilú Guevara, executive director of the League of Women Voters in Los Angeles, said last week that voters she spoke to were pleased with the new system.
“It’s definitely going to be game-changing in terms of election technology,” she said. “With these machines, they’re inclusive. We’re urging people to take advantage of the new technology and go that route.”
Under their old voting system, Los Angeles residents used equipment not unlike what led to the “hanging chad” debacle in Florida two decades ago. Charles Stewart, a professor at MIT who specializes in election administration, described it as “punch cards using Sharpies.”
Los Angeles officials wanted something better but were not convinced that the market offered good alternatives.
So in 2009, Los Angeles County launched an unprecedented effort to develop its own voting system. After years of discussion and design, the county in 2018 signed a $282 million contract with the election technology company Smartmatic to deliver a voting system by the next presidential election, acknowledging that pulling it off in time “will require incredible coordination,” the contract says.
In 2019, Padilla decertified all “legacy voting systems” in California, including the equipment in Los Angeles, leaving the county with no choice but to be ready. “There was no other option, and we were able to leverage that,” Logan said.
Then, on Dec. 24, the California Secretary of State’s office released a report by Freeman, Craft, McGregor Group, a consulting firm hired to test the system against California’s voting system standards, which have been in place since 2014.
The report said several standards had not been met: The machines that tally the results could be started by inserting a flash drive, creating an opportunity to infect them with malware, and the system lacked a security measure known as “full disk encryption,” a cybersecurity gold standard. Also, the ballot misfeed rate — essentially paper jams — was five times higher than the state standard, it said.
In addition, it said the boxes holding the paper record of voters’ selections were not sufficiently secure. “It is possible to insert or remove ballots from both the BMD and ballot transfer boxes without detection,” the report said, using the acronym for ballot-marking device.
As a condition of certification, the secretary of state’s office told the county to immediately secure the ballot boxes with state-approved, tamper-evident seals and to place covers on the machines’ USB ports. It also mandated the county to meet the encryption requirement by 2021.
The county said in a statement that the USB issue was an “undemonstrated vulnerability,” adding that, “None of the third-party testing authorities were able to successfully penetrate or activate the system.”
Mike Byrne, a professor at Rice University who served on an outside technical advisory committee for Los Angeles’s new system, said he was pleased with how accessible the voting machines are.
“How many people have been able to vote independently for the first time in their lives because of all the accessibility things they get with this? And it looks like we’ve been able to do that,” said Byrne, who studies usability of voting equipment.
The state-commissioned report on the new system also noted a problem that has led to lawsuits and contested elections across the country: Only a limited number of candidates’ names can appear on one screen. In races with many candidates, screens will have two buttons — one that says “more,” which takes voters to a screen with more options in that race, and one that says “next,” which takes them to the next race.
In its lawsuit, Beverly Hills says the design probably will confuse voters.
“When was the last time you got to Page 2 of a Google search?” said Gold, the city council candidate, whose name will appear on the second screen.
After Los Angeles presented the machine to stakeholders last year, the city suggested modifications: Randomize the order of candidates for every voter, so no one candidate was disadvantaged with all voters; educate voters about the meaning of the “more” button vs. the “next” button; and don’t allow voters to press “next” until they’ve paged through all the possible selections.
Instead, the county added a flashing yellow ring around the word “more” to draw more attention to it.
In January, when the county showed the final design, “it caught everybody by surprise,” Gold said. “We thought there was going to be a true fix.”
On Jan. 22, the city went to court, again demanding the changes it had asked for last fall. The county argued that the there was insufficient time to make such changes, and a judge declined to issue a preliminary injunction that would have required them.
Byrne is satisfied with how things have turned out. He called the flashing yellow ring a “useful intervention,” though he added, “it’s not ideal, I’m certainly willing to admit.”
“The thing that this really illustrates — this is a really hard, really complicated problem,” Byrne said. “I think L.A. County might be performing a useful public service of reminding everybody that this was actually hard.”