The Future of Voting Systems in Los Angeles County

ole0This past week I was privileged to be invited to an engaging and very informative  event hosted by the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project on Caltech’s Pasadena campus.  Turns out that L.A. County is in the early stages of figuring out “where to from here” for their next generation elections systems technology, and this event was the launch of “VSAP” their Voting Systems Assessment Project.  And they cleverly* asked the Caltech/MIT VTP to assist them in this process, framing their assessment and search in terms of “Technology, Diversity, and Democracy.”

My Take Away: With all due respect to the innovative thinking stirring in States working with the TrustTheVote Project, such as North Dakota, New York, New Hampshire, Oregon or Washington, to name a few, Los Angeles County stands to become the benchmark for what can be done, if for no other reasons than:

  1. they are far and away the largest voting district in the nation,
  2. they have unspent HAVA funds and CA bond measure proceeds they must invest in voting and elections technology improvements (or run the risk — however remote, but politically disastrous — of losing these appropriations), and
  3. they are acting in a manner I see as impressively innovative.

So, let me share why I believe this, what I learned last Wednesday, and how I see this impacting the work of the TrustTheVote Project (and vice-versa).

The Tail Wagging the Dog

Los Angeles County is the largest and most diverse election jurisdiction in the nation, serving more than four million registered voters of a wide range of race, ethnicities, national origins, age groups, and socio-economic status. The sheer physical size of their jurisdiction is impressive covering over 4080 square miles, encompassing 88 cities and over 500 political subdivisions, with 4,883 precincts and 4,394 polling locations supporting the casting of over 3.3M ballots in six languages in the last general election cycle.  That’s ridiculous in size and complexity.

I refer to this as the tail wagging the dog (still a funny visual), because while the State of CA is the largest the state of the union and one of the most significant global economic powers in its own right, it is LA County that represents the single largest elections jurisdiction of the State and the nation.  This is, from what I could ascertain, a significant point because I believe LA County is dead-set on exercising forethought, visionary leadership, and setting the bar for not only election systems complexity, but possibly excellence in choice, implementation, and operation.   Ultimately, LA County may be the standard (and trend) setter, and I am certain they will be a significant influence on the work of the TrustTheVote Project.

Show Us the Money

And we all know how money talks.  There is a — let’s just say “non-trivial” —  amount of financial resource at their disposal.  And this isn’t a matter of indiscriminate spending in harsh economic times.  No, these are previously allocated dollars courtesy of State and Federal programs directed at specifically upgrading and improving elections systems and processes.  And so one can expect the herds rushing to the trough in hopes of relieving LA County of some of that purse.  And that’s where this could get interesting.

The elections & voting systems industry (if we can call it that) is a wreck; consolidation continues, there are essentially 2 vendors left and very possibly there will be only one remaining by next year.  Frankly, I would be shocked if ultimately LA County chose yet another legacy vendor’s monolithic solution of yesteryear technology with draconian service agreement commitments as their “next generation.”    And there is no love-loss on their current ES&S InkaVote Plus system.   Moreover, voting systems certification remains a confusing hurdle.   All indications from this event are that decision makers are finished with any notion of proprietary or black box solutions.

Yet, there is no doubt, none at all, that the complexities, scale, and integration requirements for LA County will be too difficult and rich a prospect for a start-up, some well intentioned fly-by-night project, or advocates’ wishful thinking about an opportunity to bring in wholesale revolution to a solution, born of either an academic, philanthropic or entrepreneurial vision.

However, the work of the TrustTheVote Project, Caltech/MIT VTP, and other efforts will certainly have a role to play in assisting LA County in its assessment, prototyping, and ultimate selection of a new platform or (more likely) components thereof.

But the financial wherewithal means one more important thing: the opportunity to do things carefully and correctly.  That leads me to point three.

Evolve — Immediately

LA County officials understand that innovation is the ability to see change as an opportunity and not a threat.  While Ken Bennett, L.A. County’s IT Director in charge of elections systems made a compelling case that any upgrades or improvements must be evolutionary in order to protect operational continuity, Dean Logan, L.A. County Registrar, set an imperative tone about the importance of taking this perhaps once in a generation opportunity to make every effort to be as innovative as possible, and with little delay given their financial and operational mandates.

And with the remainder of this post I want to speak a little to how it appears that’s going to happen in L.A. County.

The Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk for L.A. County used the event as a launch pad for an ambitious and unprecedented Voting Systems Assessment Project (VSAP) to determine the current and future needs to be address through the modernization of the County’s voting system.

L.A. County’s approach is a marked departure and new arrival in the effort to improve a jurisdictions’ elections and voting systems technology.  For myself, I find it a stark contrast to the approach taken by the City and County of San Francisco where I am seated as a member of their “San Francisco Voting Systems Task Force.”

L.A. County immediately sought out the CalTech/MIT VTP to facilitate a process which I will explain in further detail in a follow-up post, and side-stepped (for now) the incredible bureaucratic overhead of a formal Board of Supervisors empowered Task Force.

While the City of San Francisco has good reasons and laudable goals for their far more formal approach, the downside is that the very regulations (1953 Brown Act and Sunshine Ordinances) put in place to ensure transparency, we’re created in the Industrial Age, with IMHO arguably Agrarian Age thinking, and now are actually stifling the potential transparency, agility, and capabilities of the Digital Age.

Bottom line: the SF-VSTF has spent three months essentially organizing itself due to the highly restrictive nature of the regulations that inhibit if not outright prohibit any communications — even for organizational purposes — between the Task Force Members (including notably eMail) if the number of recipients to those communications constitutes what would be construed as a quorum.

And honestly, L.A. County accomplished more in a single day of 6 hours last week than we’ve done in 8 hours worth of meetings across 3 months at the S.F. Voting Systems Task Force.  Ouch.

The result for the SF-VSTF: a highly lethargic process that although intended to ensure transparency to the processes, is actually not as transparent as possible in this era of social media.  Although a Twitter account exists for the SF-VSTF, it has remained silent.  And talks of Wikis, Blogs, or public online repositories have been all but shut down at mention.  The City Attorney’s argument is that not everyone has online access and this approach would aggravate a digital divide.  Maybe so.  Maybe so.  But I have to believe there are ways to meet the Sunshine needs of those few remaining citizens with no way to reach a web browser, while leveraging the power and capability of the Digital Age to empower San Francisco to advance their imperative agenda.

Enough.  I’m writing about the Future of L.A. County Voting Systems.

So, contrast this (S.F. County efforts)  to L.A. County.  The VSAP seeks to establish a new participatory approach that initiates the process with public input to ensure the “people” element is well balanced with those of the “technology” and “regulatory” elements.  And how are they doing it?  With Symposiums as they held last week, for sure.  And through focus groups.  And through citizen’s committees to gather and ingest this input.

And perhaps most importantly (as explained to me by one of their officials): they will use every appropriate aspect of the Internet and digital media to advance their efforts, engage the public, and ensure the widest access to their work and research of others — globally.

And that just makes such sense — especially if you’re going to lead in the digital age.

And while L.A. County’s approach (my volunteer efforts there) invigorates both my sense of the importance of what we’re trying to do on the SF-VSTF and the work the TrustTheVote Project with several States and jurisdictions, the L.A. County effort also frustrates me in witnessing how the very ordinances designed to ensure transparency on process are likely going to stymie the best intentions of the San Francisco City & County Voting Systems Task Force.

I campaigned for and earned a seat on the SF VSTF with visions of San Francisco — in the heart of the world’s leading technology center — leading the digital democracy and “” movement because of the opportunity to leverage the very best that social media, technology, and the Internet can provide to large-scale public collaborative efforts to invigorate the modernization of its elections and voting systems.  Well, for San Francisco, maybe not so much after all.

Perhaps at some point, someone with the wherewithal to modernize the Brown Act and related Sunshine Ordinances, will do so by realizing (as LA County has) that innovation is the ability to see change as an opportunity and not a threat.

In the mean time, here is to the real leader in California.  Hail to the vision, determination to innovate, and thought leadership of the Los Angeles County Recorder-Registrar.  They are, after all the largest voting jurisdiction in the nation; if their challenges can be met, they will be the de-facto benchmark for all other jurisdictions.

So, somewhat unexpectedly, innovation and leadership in modernizing elections technology may not emanate from the Silicon Valley, but in Southern California instead.

That observed, I still believe there is learning to be had, that this is a (bear with me) a “teachable moment” for the SF-VSTF, and we would do well in San Francisco to track L.A. County’s progress.

Meanwhile for the work of the TrustTheVote Project here, I see enormous synergies and opportunities to assist L.A. County.  They are thinking about technology transparency; they are considering how to evolve (but quickly); they are leaving nothing off the table; and they are interested in exploring, examining, and study.  They understand the importance of prototyping, the process of design for usability, the imperative of design for accessibility, and making damn certain they make the best informed decisions possible.  And they know they need to leverage the power of the Internet, social media, and the digital age to do all of this.

In my next post I’ll detail how L.A. County is proceeding with VSAP and offer some more about how the TrustTheVote Project will likely be of high value to them.



* I wrote “cleverly” above because L.A. County might well have taken S.F. County’s formal approach to creating a Task Force, but in casual conversation with LA County officials and folks at Caltech/MIT VTP, what I learned was they made a conscious decision to avoid formalization at this juncture.  And in fact they wished to avoid the very bureacratic complexities that would be wrought by the formality of a sanctioned Task Force.   Instead, they creatively reached out to the Caltech/MIT VTP and asked for their assistance in producing the Symposium, holding it on their Campus, and enabling the Registrar-Recorder to move very quickly in an agile fashion.  This was not — they stressed — in effort to avoid public participation or side-step government processes to ensure transparency, but rather to jump-start a process and use it as an information gathering vehicle.  Then, they will utilize citizen committees to advance the important efforts of public input.  I call that clever.

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