Lessons from California’s Primary

The Shift to Voting Centers Caused System-wide Challenges

Many Californian voters experienced long wait times and other frustrations during last week’s primary election. Challenges were particularly difficult in Los Angeles County, where local officials unveiled a new $300 million voting system and some residents had to wait 3 hours or longer to cast their ballots. The new Los Angeles voting system is part of a statewide push moving to centralized voting centers aimed at increasing voter turnout. As state and local officials begin planning for November, Californians and others interested in improving American elections can learn lessons from Los Angeles’s effort to develop a model voting system for the nation.

Changes in California state law and Los Angeles County’s new election system resulted in a dramatically different experience for local voters and poll workers. The California state law SB 450 or Voter’s Choice Act made it possible for counties to switch from polling places to voting centers. Along with a mandatory statewide Vote-by-Mail program (with some exceptions) and extending voting periods, these well-intended changes were expected to increase voter participation. Due to many factors, large voter participation increases have yet to materialize in Los Angeles County.

Last Tuesday’s experience revealed significant growing pains transitioning to new voting systems. The greatest of the changes implemented so far is the implementation of voting centers, eliminating the neighborhood polling place. In many cases, voters had cast their ballots in the same local location for decades. The tradition of the neighborhood polling place has been an important affair for many families and shared between generations of voters. 

State and local election officials have good reasons to transition to centralized voting centers. Managing a fewer number of more organized, better managed voting locations makes sense from an operations point of view. As election systems become more complex, it becomes more difficult to support many thousands of polling places for large municipalities. However, the change has disrupted the complex election process that those polling places were a part of. 

Now without the ability to walk to a polling station, most people must drive to vote in person. While this may seem like a small issue, in many cases it may mean voting in person on election day becomes difficult. Due to heavy voter turnout where many of the job concentrations are, centralized voting centers can become overwhelmed. For example, approximately 650,000 Los Angeles voters voted in person on election day, which led to extremely long lines at some centers.. We live in an age where our point in time ability to navigate traffic determines where we go and when. So an unintended consequence from the change to voting centers, Waze, Google Maps, and Apple Maps now become a major player in the ability of a location to handle voting traffic.

These overwhelmed voting centers need to be actively monitored for traffic and wait times. Traditional methods would ask poll workers to call into an elections headquarters to update staff on wait times. As shown in election primaries this year, relying on the phones is an analog solution in a digital world. Phone lines get jammed and staff answering calls get overwhelmed. Instead we should expect voters to use their mobile poll registration application to check in automatically when they arrive at a voting center. This automatic activity will alert the poll registration system to the increased voting demand and likely resulting wait times. The same monitoring data can be shared with a variety of services supporting wait time web sites and mobile mapping applications like Waze, Google Maps, and Apple Maps. This could allow for the election day voters to maximize their options of voting with a minimum of delays. 

The Voter’s Choice Act did anticipate the concentration of voters at voting centers by extending the days of operation for voting centers to 10 days before election day. It appears however, that many people do not take advantage of early voting. There are many reports on the ground about voters wanting to participate directly in the voting process on election day. In Los Angeles, a very small percentage of the expected voters voted early. Only about 250,000 voters or 15.3% of the votes cast used the voting centers during the early voting period. As a part of the trade off of moving to centralized voting centers, the number of places to vote required by the Voter’s Choice Act has been greatly reduced than in the past. When using voting centers a county is only required a ratio of 1 voting center to 50,000 voters on election day. Los Angeles followed this allowance and reduced their number of places to vote from roughly 4,500 to 978. This caused an unexpected swell of voters on election day to a smaller number of places to vote than in past elections. Coupled with regular election process issues and the few design problems already being worked on, this added up to increased demand for a smaller than normal number of election machines.  Unfortunately for Los Angeles, either by procrastination or the desire to go by tradition, many voters continue to vote on election day.

An additional side effect of moving to voting centers has been moving to electronic countywide registration systems. The electronic registration system is now required in every voting center location as any county voter is allowed to vote anywhere in the county. This change coupled with the new Voter’s Choice Act mandate that any potential voter can register to vote on election day has injected more complexity into the counties’ election processes. It appears that Sacramento’s ability to handle the load of electronic registration traffic became overwhelmed early on election day. Once this happened, many of the voting centers in the state developed long lines. It is unclear if Los Angeles’ reported ePollbook registration problems were related to the California Secretary of State’s voter file database network outage. Nevertheless, once processes are centralized they are vulnerable to these types of single points of failure. As of 10 March 2020 16:14 PT, the reported primary votes cast is 29.6% of the total registered Los Angeles County voters. This is roughly even to down from the previous primaries in the same county. This result bucks the trend set by the Super Tuesday states that held primaries on 03 March 2020 where the turnout increased in many cases by large margins. It is difficult to pin the disappointing voting results solely on the registration system failures. We should expect that both Sacramento and Los Angeles will identify the problems with their voter registration systems and correct them. It is however a continuing issue with this year’s election processes, that the centralization of election systems brings new problems to already complex systems.

In conclusion, changes to complex systems are difficult to fully plan ahead for. As we work through fixing the flaws already identified by the California Secretary of State and the Los Angeles Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk, voters should expect better election systems come November. While these fixes will improve the performance of the election systems as currently designed, the problems with the good intentions of the Voter’s Choice Act will remain. The Voter’s Choice Act was designed to significantly increase voter turnout. As shown by multiple reports across the United States this election cycle, many voters prefer to vote in person on election day. Even with the increase of Vote-by-Mail options and early voting periods, these choices have failed to significantly change American’s desire to participate directly in the act of voting with their friends and neighbors. The unfortunate side-effect of centralizing elections has created choke points in these new systems. To reduce the impact of these choke points, election systems need more election machines and voting centers than required by the Voter’s Choice Act, geolocation aware electronic registration tools, and near real-time election traffic monitoring.  Integrating the monitoring of voting center traffic with tools like Google Maps would additionally improve election day voting significantly. These operational improvements can mitigate some of the problems of centralizing a complex election system.

Image from Los Angeles County Registrar, https://lavote.net/home/voting-elections/community-voter-outreach/demo-center

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