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Voters struggled with LA’s fancy new voting machines on Super Tuesday

The California primary marked the debut of a new voting system. Some voters encountered technical issues.

This voter in Long Beach, California, got to use the new touchscreen voting machine on Super Tuesday 2020.
Brittany Murray/MediaNews Group/Long Beach Press-Telegram via Getty Images
Rebecca Heilweil covered emerging technology, artificial intelligence, and the supply chain.

New voting machines made their debut on Super Tuesday in Los Angeles County, raising concerns about unreliable technology. While the system is meant to modernize voting and make democracy more accessible, some voters complained about technical glitches and usability. That’s not great news since LA represents a massive election district in the state that had the most delegates up for grabs in the Democratic primary.

On Tuesday, the Los Angeles Times reported election officials were having issues with their systems linking up with California’s voter database, which meant that the registration system wasn’t tracking who had already voted or incorporating new registration information. This is a big problem, since California passed a law last year that allows for voter registration on Election Day in an effort to enfranchise more voters.

Meanwhile, many voters complained on Twitter that their voting machines weren’t working, with some reaching out to election officials on the platform for help. There were also complaints that the machines were not taking voters’ paper ballots, which need to be inserted back into the machine. Several people also said that the e-poll books weren’t working.

Dale Robinson, a Los Angeles voter, confirmed to Recode in an email that one voting machine was “down completely” and the other was working “very slowly” at the first voting center he visited in Highland Park. A volunteer recommended he vote at a nearby location, which he did. Similarly, voter Michael Connor told Recode that when he inserted his printed ballot into the machine’s scanner at the voting center he visited in Reseda, it displayed a loading, swirling icon for five minutes. A technician ultimately helped him insert the ballot into another machine.

And Nicole Smith, another Los Angeles voter, said that when she visited a voting center in Eagle Rock, several of the machines were marked with “out of order” signs.

Jennifer Cohn, an attorney and election integrity advocate, aggregated at least 100 social media or news reports related to the new voting system. They’re all bad.

The reported failures are especially discouraging because they represent a $280 million effort to modernize LA’s elections. The new voting machines are part of LA’s Voting Solutions for All People (VSAP) and come equipped with touchscreens and futuristic-looking yellow-and-black stands. The system even allows voters to fill out their ballots ahead of time on other devices and then send that information to the voting machines through a QR code. Importantly, all votes are meant to be backed up with a paper record, which is designed to be a fail-safe should something go technically awry with the system.

VSAP is publicly owned and was designed to use open-source technology, making the program the first of its kind in the nation. The machines themselves arrive with another new change in LA: Instead of local polling stations, people can now vote from anywhere in the county, thanks to a centralized voter database. Some voting machines are even being moved around the Los Angeles area, which should make it easier for less-mobile populations to vote.

It’s all supposed to be high tech, but the system has been showing some low-tech flaws since it debuted earlier this year. In late February, during California’s early voting period, CBS reported that some of the new voting machines were going unused because of issues with equipment, and that about 30 out of 229 total locations didn’t open on time because of issues with the tech.

At that time, the system had already raised security and usability concerns. Even Rep. Ted Lieu, a Democrat whose district covers parts of West LA, complained on Twitter that users wouldn’t see all candidates available for each race without clicking a “more” button, which could inadvertently lead some voters to believe their first-choice candidate isn’t an available option, especially in a crowded race.

Days earlier, Lieu and two other California representatives released a statement, saying that the “current situation is not acceptable and inadequate measures have been taken to remedy this serious flaw.” That same issue had also motivated Beverly Hills to sue LA County in January in an effort to get a handful of changes made to the new voting machines.

“It was not intuitive. The screens with ‘more’ buttons [were] annoying and the ‘more’ button would partially cover the candidate who was listed lowest on the page,” Robinson told Recode. While the machines didn’t cause the havoc that the Iowa caucus app did, Robinson said he was disappointed with the system, given how much Los Angeles spent.

Recode reached out to Smartmatic, the company that helped design the system, which declined to comment, as well as to the Los Angeles County Registrar, which did not respond by the time of publication.

It’s not clear how widespread these problems are, but they fit into a worrisome trend in which new US voting tech comes with technical flaws or is just plain difficult to use. Already, the caucuses in Nevada and Iowa have raised concerns about whether our tech is being properly tested before elections. And these issues come amid broader concerns about the integrity of US elections infrastructure and worries of foreign interference.

Of course, we may not be prepared for every possible way Russia might try to hack our elections, but basic technical usability flaws — like the ones we’re now seeing in LA’s voting machines — probably aren’t helping our cause.

Update, March 4, 2020/11:15 am: This post has been updated with accounts, collected through our Open Sourced network, of issues voters encountered while trying to vote in Los Angeles.

Open Sourced is made possible by the Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.

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