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Voting Needs A Serious Overhaul And L.A. Might Have The Solution

One way to untangle the mess that is voting in America.

If abysmal election participation is any indication, voter experience in the United States desperately demands an overhaul. In 2014, turnout hovered around just 36 percent. Federal and local governments have been experimenting with ways that technology can streamline services, whether it’s obtaining business permits or healthcare. In Los Angeles County, the focus is on a pillar of democracy: voting.

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Dean Logan is the Los Angeles County Registrar and County Clerk and is leading the local call for a new approach to voting. “We live in a time where technology is changing rapidly and where voters and citizens are used to some level of customization and choice in how they participate in civic activities,” Logan says. “We need a system that caters to these experiences. It needs to be agile, secure, and private but as a core foundation it needs to be adaptable to technological advancements and changes in voter behavior.”

In 2014, L.A. County embarked on a $15 million contract with Ideo to take a human-centered approach to the problem. The resulting prototype, which is still in the review stages, centers around reinventing voting from two angles. The first is recasting the entire experience from beginning to end. The second is building new machines that offer the ease and flexibility of touch screen systems with the security of a paper trail.

A Candidate for Change
A new system won’t cause civic engagement to spike overnight, but it’s a step in the right direction. There’s little confidence that votes are counted correctly, new stories surface regularly about the technical susceptibility of systems in place, ballots change by jurisdiction, and there are many layers of complexity throughout. Moreover, voters are required to head to a specific polling place during a set time period.

The L.A. project’s genesis dates back to the infamous 2000 Bush v. Gore election debacle. At the time, there was a close margin between the two candidates in Florida, which resulted in a ballot recount that exposed flaws in the system. The punch-card ballots were confusing, eligible voters were incorrectly turned away, some voters didn’t complete their ballots correctly, and there were different standards in place to evaluate ballots that had to be hand-counted. Essentially, there is little faith that the current systems in place reflect accurate votes—a very discouraging fact in a county that’s founded on democracy.

After the 2000 election, some states ditched paper ballots and raced to an all-electronic system. Good in theory, but in practice the machines’ performance fell short. California passed Proposition 41, the Voting Modernization Act, in 2002 to upgrade its systems. In 2004, the state decertified the use of 14,000 electronic voting machines due to security and fraud concerns.

Elections have remained virtually unchanged in L.A. County since the 1960s (voters currently use an inking method to mark ballots). In the early 2000s, the county didn’t spend any of their earmarked money to digitize the process because there simply wasn’t a product that fulfilled the jurisdiction’s diverse needs. The region is multi-lingual and immense by geographic standards. There are 4,800 polling places spread over the county’s 4,750 square miles. One election day could require around 300 different ballots.

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“Our voting system is nearing the end of its lifespan and no longer functions in a way that serves the full scope of our electorate,” Logan says. “Since the market and regulatory environment aren’t in place, we decided to do something on our own. We said, if we’re going to do that, let’s do something different from how other voting systems are designed—let’s focus on the voter.”

Challenging the Incumbent
The problem doesn’t start and end with voting technology and devices—it’s about envisioning a new experience.

Through focus groups, one-on-one interviews, and community workshops, Ideo is rethinking the experience from the ground up. The approach is novel for government because there hasn’t been such detailed, human-centered research into improving voting. Previously, the funds earmarked for modernization were restricted to purchasing existing certified voting systems.

“The goal is to understand the true motivations and needs of such a diverse population,” Blaise Bertrand, Design Lead at Ideo, says. “To design an experience, we have to take everything into consideration: the hardware, the software, and all of the touch points. It’s putting the user, not technology first.”

Ideo strove to make casting ballots easy, friendly, engaging and intuitive. To do this, they borrowed from recognizable interfaces and experiences, like ATMs and boarding passes for airlines. “Although we are designing a new system, there are things out there that people are used to, and part of our role as designers is to leverage some of those experiences,” Bertrand says. “What we’re working on is a behavioral change, and it’s very important to make that transition as smooth as possible so familiarity is important. We heard over and over again from users, ‘It’s a new system, but I feel like I can connect with it—it’s not completely foreign to me.’”

During its research, Ideo discovered that what voters want is choice not just on the ballot but in how they submit it. Take checking in for a flight. You can do it online and print your boarding pass at home or you can download an e-ticket or QR code and save it to your smartphone. If you prefer to wait until you get to the airport, you can go to an automated kiosk and get your ticket. Or you can go the full-service route and do it all at the counter. The lesson here is that individuals have preferences and want to make decisions accordingly. Voting, as it exists today, is about getting millions of people to conform to a single process.

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Ideo’s proposal centers around separating ballot marking and vote counting. Users cast votes on touch screens and a machine prints a paper ballot that gets counted. There’s the ease of technology and the security of a paper trail. Users have the option of an “expedited experience” afforded by pre-marking their votes on a web platform Ideo calls the Interactive Sample Ballot. The voting machine scans the ISB when voters arrive at a polling location. The ISB pre-populates the ballot, the user verifies that the votes are correct—they can change their votes at this time, too—then the voting machine prints out a hardcopy. Alternatively, voters can just show up at a the polling place and make their choices via the touch screen. In either case, the machine prints a hardcopy that the user reviews and feeds through a scanner in the machine. Ballots are collected and counted at a centralized location.

Part of the technical system also responds to Logan’s call for a vote-center model, meaning that voters can go to any polling location and ensure that they will be able to receive the correct ballot. This is accomplished by giving each voter a QR code based on their address. Once that’s scanned at a polling location, the system calls up the specific ballot that they need. Right now, voters don’t have that flexibility in L.A. since it would be physically impossible to stock that many paper ballots across the county.

The physical attributes of the machine are such that it offers privacy. The touch screen is only visible from close proximity so passersby can’t read what’s on it. Wheelchair users can angle the screen down. The actual machine collapses down to the size of a large suitcase for portability.

Ideo and L.A. are still refining the concept and hope to begin piloting the new machines by 2018 and accomplishing full implementation by 2020.

Will A New Administration Take Hold?
Part of redefining the experience isn’t about building software and hardware—it’s a policy problem. Government is notoriously sluggish and decision makers are often wary of change. In the wake of the electronic voting hiccups in the early 2000s, skepticism for new models is warranted.

“We’re not just redesigning equipment, we’re redesigning an experience,” Logan says. “Some of that is going to require changes in regulations. We’re looking for a whole different model and the California legislature is beginning to have the dialog.”

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Improving voter experience doesn’t start and end with polling. While Logan says that adopting a vote-center model is “the most significant regulatory change that needs to take place,” he also points out that registration is problematic. He wants to move away from the ancient models of paper registration and provisional ballots and toward same-day registration and technology that would allow poll staffers to verify eligibility on-site.

“Provisional ballots are a gray area, too,” Logan says. “The experience the voter goes through with that doesn’t leave them feeling confident that their votes are going to be counted. It doesn’t do a great job of selling them on the value of coming back and voting in the next election.”

Because of all of the laws involved with voting, the project is a very ambitious one. Even if L.A. and Ideo propose a model that works for users, it still needs to approval from the state and county—a review process that will be very rigorous.

“In the public sector we tend to measure our success by conforming to regulations,” Logan says. “For example, we can design to conform with a legal mandate for accessibility—things like the height and width of voting equipment to accommodate a wheelchair. What we learned from this project is that in order to do this right, you have to go beyond simply measuring conformance with regulations…It’s about also finding out, does that conformance also meet with the intrinsic values the voter places on the experience.”

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About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.

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