Voting Systems Assessment Project (VSAP) in Los Angeles County
- General Issues
- Governance & Political Institutions
- Science & Technology
- Media, Telecommunications & Information
- Specific Topics
- Administration of Campaigns and Elections
- Citizenship & Role of Citizens
- Scope of Influence
- Start Date
- Time Limited or Repeated?
- A single, defined period of time
- Spectrum of Public Participation
- Total Number of Participants
- Open to All or Limited to Some?
- Limited to Only Some Groups or Individuals
- Recruitment Method for Limited Subset of Population
- Targeted Demographics
- Racial/Ethnic Groups
- Appointed Public Servants
- Face-to-Face, Online, or Both
- Types of Interaction Among Participants
- Express Opinions/Preferences Only
- Ask & Answer Questions
- Discussion, Dialogue, or Deliberation
- Decision Methods
- Opinion Survey
- Communication of Insights & Outcomes
- Public Report
- James Irvine Foundation, Voting Technology Project, The California Institute of Technology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
- Evidence of Impact
- Implementers of Change
- Appointed Public Servants
This case details a decade-long innovation beginning in 2009 to replace the outdated InkaVote Plus voting system in Los Angeles County.
Problems and Purpose
The Voting Systems Assessments Project, also known as Voting Solutions All People, (VSAP) is a civic innovation to modernise the electoral services, specifically the InkaVote Plus voting system in Los Angeles County. The current voting system is outdated, having first being introduced five decades ago, so the (VSAP) provided a framework for the need to ensure that the integrity of elections is protected while maximising accessibility and openness to public participation (2).
Background History and Context
The Voting Systems Assessments Project started on 16th September 2009 and is a decade-long initiative to improving the voting system in Los Angeles County (8). The project is opening up the voting processes and the system through innovations in civic technology (1). The initiative was introduced because of the need to replace the current outdated LA County voting system (InkaVote Plus) which was first introduced in the 1960s. The system is no longer fit for purpose because LA has now over 5 million voters and the significant demographic changes that have taken place during that time have meant there are 10 different languages spoken amongst the population. The current system also is limited because it only allows a maximum 312 vote positions over 12 pages preventing longer ballots for more positions or propositions.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The project was supported and endorsed by the Voting Technology Project, which is a project run by both The California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and James Irvine Foundation and this helped to secure a grant of $150,000 towards the required research for the project (8).
Participant Recruitment and Selection
Phase One Research
Firstly, YouGov/Polimetrix conducted a countywide voter survey from March 16th to March 28th, 2010 containing 500 random sampled voters who then undertook the online survey. Alongside this America Inc. collected a sample of 651 voters then asked them to complete phone surveys between March 11th and March 29th. The telephone surveys also had additional language features to ensure the Mandarin and Spanish speaking population were able to participate in the surveys (8).
Secondly, there were 12 voter focus groups which focused on demographics that are underrepresented. There were 100 voters that took part in the focus groups which were conducted between; April 5 - 7, 2010 and April 29 - May 3, 2010. The focus groups consisted of the following; general electorate, vote-by-mail voters, African American, Latino (English speaking), Asian (English speaking), Latino (Spanish speaking), Chinese (Mandarin speaking) Voters with Disabilities, Voters with Disabilities who are Korean (Korean speaking) and finally Young Voters (18-25) (8).
Thirdly, there was a poll worker survey conducted online by 1,100 poll workers between April 29 and June 8, 2010. The aim of the survey was to ask the polling staff what their thoughts and opinions were of the voting process and system used in Los Angeles County (8).
Fourthly, local election officials comprising of 26 City Clerks were asked to take part in focus groups which were conducted between May 7th and May 11th, 2010. The clerks were asked for their feedback on the current system used in LA and their thoughts on voting systems (8)
Finally, from March 31st through April 2nd, 2010 there were internal discussion groups with Department staff’. These comprised of 64 Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk staff giving feedback and ideas on current voting systems and new systems (8).
Methods and Tools Used
The various methodologies asked respondents about four types of voting systems in relation to marking and counting ballots in LA County. These were: Optical Scanning, DREs, hand-counted paper and the current InkaVote Plus. Voters were additionally asked to state what values and priorities they want a new voting system to enact.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
The project is divided into five phases, with phase four currently in progress and scheduled to end in December 2019 (9). Phase one of the project aimed to gather public opinion on the current voting system and what qualities voters valued in a new system. This involved extensive research using surveys of the general population and gathered extensive quantitative data and gauged public opinion on; the current voting system in LA County, the values and priorities needed in voting systems and a range of options available to replace the existing voting system. This was done alongside 12 focus groups, this method gained valuable qualitative data on public opinion on the matter but additionally, the focus groups sought to speak with voters from marginal groups such as those with disabilities, young voters and ethnic minorities who have lower turnout (8). Phase two involved the stakeholders and committee members analysing the research undertaken during the first phase and sort this into priorities and values that the new system should undertake known as the General Voting System Principles (GVSP).
Phases & Dates Timetable 
· Phase One: Public Opinion Baseline Research (September 2009 – July 2010)
· Phase Two: Process Assessment (January 2011 – December 2011)
· Phase Three: System Design and Engineering (January 2012 – September 2016)
· Phase Four: Manufacturing and Certification (October 2016 – December 2019)
· Phase Five: Implementation (TBC)
The results from the surveys showed some polarization and the emergence some apparent cleavages between different demographic groups in relation to what they wanted from the new system. Though there was some consensus on issues such as voters generally ranked accuracy of counting ballots as the most important feature in a voting system with security ranking second place (8).
Most voters trust the current voting system which is expressed by 84% of LA county voters feeling confident their vote was counted in the 2008 elections. However, qualitative research showed that controversies of Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004 were cited through the qualitative methods concerning electoral mistrust (8). The survey of the poll workers found that 55% of poll workers supported the current InkaVote Plus system and with 18% opposed (8). The polling staff also expressed that they had high levels of trust in the InkaVote Plus voting system, however, while polling staff felt that the system was highly trusted, it did not do enough to widen participation among the electorate, was not simplified enough to give easy access to the voting process and additionally that the system used was too outdated (8).
Specific demographic groups had different opinions on the different aspects of the voting system. Firstly, among those who did not graduate from high school, they favoured hand-counted paper ballots by a margin of 26.0% while only 7.5% of college graduates supporting the same position (8). Additionally, there were splits along party lines with 39.4% of Democratic voters who favoured electronic machines, in comparison to 58.4% of Republican voters (8). Furthermore, there was a schism by that of an age where those aged 18-29 supported using electronic voting machines to count ballots by 42.1%, while that aged 65+ support for DREs was just 20.6%. However, support for the DREs among Black voters and Asian voters also supported was 37.6% and 43.5% a plurality like the general population as a whole. While those who did not speak English or had disabilities often cited very different issues, especially language options for non-English speakers and ease of access/use for voters with disabilities, as their priorities for voting systems (8).
Focus Group Results
One of the key values voters expressed in the focus groups was that many voters participated in the electoral process in order to exercise their democratic rights, that citizens should be involved in decision making. Participants additionally stated that the right to vote was sacred and those who vote do so in the acknowledgement that historic struggle has given them enfranchisement (8). Secondly, voters articulated that the convenience of where voting takes place was also important, by including locality of polling stations and access to alternative voting methods such as a vote by mail and absentee ballots. Thirdly, the time is taken, and ease of voting is cited as being important to the process with non-English speaking voters raising concerns around ballot language barriers and voters with disabilities struggling to see ballots (8). The analogy of a new voting system being compared to ATM machines was positively perceived in the focus groups. Younger voters expressed a desire that a new voting system should give the option to vote online in future elections (8).
The newer system options were generally more supported because the hand counting ballot was perceived to be too time-consuming and costly to some voters, but others did like the idea that there’s a traceable paper trail of all votes cast. The electronic ballot marking device was generally well received with voters stating that giving this option enables more accurate recording of ballots. The Direct Electronic Recording (DRE) was also well received as being efficient and effective and making the voting process easier. However, there were concerns about potential problems and what would be done if there were inaccuracies and how these could be traced and rectified (8).
VSAP Advisory Committee (AdCom) and the VSAP Technical Advisory Committee (TAC.) are major stakeholders in the project and during the third phase of the project took part in several meetings to oversee the process and ensure there was ‘transparency’ (9).
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The consensus of experts in the report was that there was no specific voting system that would meet all the needs of LA County voters and so it was decided that a new system should allow multiple options to ensure there are flexibility and ease of access for voters. Polling staff stated that any new system must be adaptable to events such as power-outages. The new system should cater for modern lifestyles and represent The system should cater to the geographical size of LA County and so transportation of ballots and machines should be considered. While the expertise of polling staff to operate the system is important and so ensure training is given and keep high staff retention (8).
There will be the introduction of new voting centres that use innovative technology to enable voters to cast their ballots while giving voters a chance to participate in early voting 10 days before an election. The new voting system includes a ballot marking device (BMD) with touchscreen and paper ballot for extra verification. An interactive sample ballot that gives the option to votes to configure their ballot on their phone to generate a QR code to upload to the system when arriving to vote. There will be new voting centres and the introduction of a new Vote-By-Mail (VBM) system(3). There will also be new technology that enables scanners to count votes more quickly and effectively (9).
The new BMD’s have been designed to be modern and ensure that the system is easy to use, both in its usage and for minority groups. Such as those disabilities where size, font and audio options are enhanced while allowing for wheelchair users to access the booths. Those who do not have English as their first language can select from 10 main languages spoken in LA County ensuring the process caters for these groups (9). The Interactive Sample Ballot (ISB) enables voters to select their ballot choices away from the voting centre and simply upload their QR code to verify and print their ballot with the pre-selected choices (9). This initiative would save time and ensure more voters can vote quicker meaning less time queuing. The new voting centres mean that voters may choose to cast a ballot at any centre across the county and not just the one assigned nearest to their address.
The VSAP project has sought to engage the public in its process, particularly in its third phase where several minority groups some of which include ‘California Council of the Blind, United Cerebral Palsy of Los Angeles (UCPLA), Native American Veterans Association (NAVA), the League of Women Voters (9).’ The project also ensured that there were regular updates given to local and national media, such as Bloomberg, CBS, The Washington Post, and LA Times (9), to inform the public of the progress the initiative was undertaking. The VSAP also has undertaken to test of some of its prototypes with members of the public as a further sign of building relations and keeping the public involved and up to date with the project.
Los Angeles County approved the Voting Solutions All People .1.0 on 21st August 2018, which will see the county’s electoral system be the first publicly owned system in California (7). There was the introduction of the new vote by mail (VBM) system which will be able to allow increased accessibility for voters and improves electoral integrity in the county. The department for the California secretary of state gave out the new vote by mail ballots (VBM) on October 9th with the new ballot packs containing fully funded postage and ‘I Voted’ sticker merchandise (4)(7). This enabled the new VBM ballots to be used in the 2018 midterm elections, the turnout in the 2018 midterm elections was 57.3% (5), this is higher than the 2014 midterm election turnout which stood at 25.5% (6).
Analysis and Lessons Learned
The process is yet to be fully completed and so a full analysis of the project cannot be undertaken as the full context or outcomes have yet to transpire. As the project is not complete there is no official final report that gives a reflective overview of the stages. However, with the research in phase one if such research was undertaken today there would be more extensive options available to consult the public with, due to a rise in technological innovation since 2009 (1).
There some good outcomes from the VSAP and the ambition of the project to seek radical overhaul are commendable. However, there are some issues particularly when this case study is compared to others of a somewhat similar nature. This is because research conducted by Alvarez, Katz and Pomares (2011) in South America, specifically in the countries of Argentina and that of Colombia found some results that are the opposite of what research in the VSAP found. These being that there were schisms in relation to the confidence of electronic voting machines being lower in young people than older people (10). This is primarily due to young people being more aware of how voting machines can be tampered with and could be ‘hacked’ and updated with viruses. Hence the confidence of young people and graduates having their votes counted by electronic machines in these cases was much lower, while non-graduates and older voters had much more confidence in the system that their vote had been counted (10). Some concerns around the technology were raised in the focus groups but in the statistical results, any correlation with the study in South America is minimal. The introduction of the new direct recording voting machines being new and innovative may seem ambitious given that India is a more fragile democracy and the poorer country has had (DRE) voting machines before this project started (12). In India, most votes were cast in such a way (12) by using (DRE) voting machines and so the length and scale of the LA project do appear perplexing when compared to countries such as India.
The suggestion by the young voters in the focus group of introducing online voting is an interesting idea and was commissioned a report in the UK for its introduction, where a postal pack could be sent to individual voters and there would be information disclosed in such packs that would have pins to log in and cast a ballot at home from a computer (11). However, given recent Special Counsel investigation into Russian activities in the 2016 vote, the introduction of online voting in the US is a remote idea. The sampling of the participants, while it did reach out to types of voters, there could have been a population-wide consultation to run alongside in order to seek the views of the whole population rather than reply on small mini-publics. However, this process was better than the British Columbia electoral system mini public in 2004 which had only 160 participants and no consultations with external experts as was here but simply learn as participants went (13). The focus group component of this innovation can be seen positively as this was much more deliberative in nature and ensured low-turnout underrepresented groups were represented in the VSAP. This is important because they are underrepresented to seek the how and why is more important arguably than using an alternative method that wouldn’t provide extra qualitative information.
1. The Emergence of Civic Tech: Investments in a Growing Field (Knight Foundation 2013) https://www.knightfoundation.org/media/uploads/publication_pdfs/knight-civic-tech.pdf
2. Ash Center Announces Finalists and Top 10 Programs for Public Engagement in Government Award (2017) https://ash.harvard.edu/RoyLilaTopTen2017
3. "VSAP Tally 1.0, A New Open Source Vote-Counting System By LA County Gets Final State Approval | Packt Hub". 2018. Packt Hub. https://hub.packtpub.com/vsap-tally-1-0-a-new-open-source-vote-counting-system-by-la-county-gets-final-state-approval/
4. LA County Oks Open-Source Election System". 2018. Govtech.Com. http://www.govtech.com/computing/LA-County-OKs-Open-Source-Election-System.html.
5. 2018 California General Election Results". 2018. Election Results. https://vote.sos.ca.gov/returns/maps/voter-turnout.
6. Radio, Southern. 2018. "Election 2014 Turnout: Only 1 In 4 LA Voters Cast Ballots In Tuesday's Midterm". Southern California Public Radio. https://www.scpr.org/blogs/politics/2014/11/05/17518/turnout-for-what-millions-of-la-county-voters-sit/
7. Public Records Request: Source Code For OpenSource VSAP Tally Version 1.0". 2018. Osvtac.Github.Io. https://osvtac.github.io/files/meetings/2018/2018-09-13/packet/LA_County_Records_Request.pdf.
8. State Department, California. 2010. VOTING SYSTEMS ASSESSMENT PROJECT REPORT VOTING SYSTEMS ASSESSMENT PROJECT REPORT. Ebook. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County REGISTRAR-RECORDER/COUNTY CLERK. http://vsap.lavote.net/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/vsap_project_report_070910.pdf.
9. Voting Systems Assessment Project- Phase III: System Design And Engineering. 2017. Ebook. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County. http://vsap.lavote.net/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/VSAP-Phase-III-Report.pdf.
10. Alvarez, R. Michael, Gabriel Katz, and Julia Pomares. "The impact of new technologies on voter confidence in Latin America: evidence from e-voting experiments in Argentina and Colombia." Journal of Information Technology & Politics 8.2 (2011): 199-217
11. Coleman, Stephen et al. 2002. Elections in the 21st Century: From Paper Ballot to E-Voting. The Independent Commission on Alternative Voting Methods. London: Electoral Reform Society
12. Wolchok, S., Wustrow, E., Halderman, J.A., Prasad, H.K., Kankipati, A., Sakhamuri, S.K., Yagati, V. and Gonggrijp, R., 2010, October. Security analysis of India's electronic voting machines. In Proceedings of the 17th ACM conference on Computer and communications security (pp. 1-14). ACM.
13. Ryan, Matt and Smith, G. (2014) Defining mini-publics. In, Gronlund, Kimmo, Bachtiger, Andre and Setala, Maija (eds.) Deliberative Mini-publics: Involving Citizens in the Democratic Process, 9-26.
The project has won several awards, including: the Outstanding IT Project Award at the Los Angeles Digital Summit; the Election Verification Network - Outstanding Innovation in Election Technologies Award; the 2012 Election Center - Professional Practices Freedom Award for Innovation; and the National Association of County Officials - 2010 Achievement Award. It has also received a Quality and Productivity Commission - Certificate of Recognition. 
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