Tag Archives: voting machine

Voting Experience: Los Angeles’ New “Vote Centers” and Machines

Los Angeles County has a new voting system this year. Instead of every registered voter being assigned a specific polling place based on their home address, you can vote at any polling place — excuse me, “vote center” — in the county. There are fewer locations than there used to be, but they’re also open longer for early voting, with locations open the weekend before election day, and some open as many as 11 days ahead.

The idea, as I understand it, is to make it as easy as possible to get to a polling place, no matter what work hours or commute you have to deal with. Hit one near home on your day off, or near work during lunch, or whatever works.

I went in Monday morning for Tuesday’s primary election, figuring the lines would probably be shorter. It was at the local library, and I was kind of amused to see the “Please do not place ballots in book drop” sign, but as expected, there was basically no line. The process was interesting:

  1. They scanned my sample ballot and printed out a code on an otherwise-blank sheet of paper.
  2. I took the paper to one of the voting machines and placed it into a feeder slot.
  3. The machine pulled the paper in and launched the ballot on a touch screen. (The screen was a lot more responsive than the first digital voting machines I used back in the 2000s, where I could actually watch the screen repaint!)
  4. I chose a language for the ballot.
  5. I went through each ballot item, one page at a time. The full name/description was a touch target for each option, and once I’d selected a candidate (or yes/no), I pressed another button at the bottom of the screen to go to the next page.
  6. For items with more candidates than would fit on one screen, “More” buttons would pop up at the top and bottom of the screen. Not ideal, but at least it avoided the accidental-click-while-scrolling problem.
  7. At the end, it printed out all my choices on the paper and ejected it (with the top edge still in the rollers) so I could look it over.
  8. I pressed Confirm one more time, and it pulled the ballot back in for storage.

It also had headphones and physical buttons for an audio interface, and there were a lot of volunteers to help voters learn the new system.

It’s probably the most usable balloting system I’ve used. No paddle-wheel or slowly-responding buttons to overshoot with. No lining up generic scantron sheets with the ballot questions and hoping you didn’t position it wrong. No concern that the lever is going to knock over the cardboard voting booth when you punch it (though I do miss the satisfying ka-thunk! of those levers!)

And I really appreciate that the paper trail is not just machine-readable, but human-readable as well! Because that’s the key thing with ballots: it’s more important to be sure that the count is correct than to count it fast. The only way to be sure of that it to have an offline copy that can’t be hacked, like the paper printout. And a sheet of paper with the actual names is much easier to verify than a grid of unlabeled multiple-choice bubbles that you have to line up next to the right options.

Update: With election day come and gone, it’s clear that my good experience was only because I was there early. Countywide, LA reported long lines and people having trouble with the machines. Even at this same location, people waited for hours — in a primary, which normally has lower turnout. Even though there was another station less then a mile away with no line at all. And even though poll workers told them about it!

It’s definitely going to be a good idea to vote early in November, if possible. Update 2: Or just vote by mail, depending on what the Covid-19 pandemic looks like by then.

Election Day 2008

Katie and I got up early so we could hit the polls first thing in the morning and not have to worry about whether we’d be stuck in an insanely long line at the end of the day, like we were in 2004 and 2006. The first thing we noticed was the sound of rain falling outside. Since we were expecting a huge turnout, I’d planned on walking, fearing we might have to park far enough away that we might as well have walked. Fortunately by the time we left, it had died down to little more than a drizzle.

We got to the polling place, an elementary school, about 7:05, just after it opened, found the right line (they had two precincts voting at the same location), and there were only about 15-20 people ahead of us. We got into a conversation with other people around us about the merits of early voting (one guy joked that he’d already voted for the 2012 election), exit polls, and the electoral college.

The poll workers were a surprise. Usually in this area it tends to be older people who volunteer to run the polls, but it seemed like 2/3 of them were in their late teens/early twenties. Katie figured it had to do with the economic slowdown: we know who’s out of work.

They’ve mostly worked out the kinks in the electronic voting system, though they’re now offering a choice of electronic or paper ballot when you sign in. You go through several stations, signing the roll of voters, confirming your address, and finally getting either a paper ballot or an access key for the electronic ballot.

I still don’t like the user interface on these voting machines — it’s a paddle wheel interface, where you rotate a dial to move the selection on the LCD screen forward or back, with buttons to check things off — but it does at least include a printed record. There’s a roll of paper in the machine with a window, and after you’ve confirmed the summary of your selections (with a big red button that says “Cast Ballot”), it prints them out, asks you to confirm the printout, then scrolls it out of view so the next person can’t see what you chose.

Anyway, the whole process took only 35 minutes from finding the line to picking up the “I Voted” sticker. Kids were just starting to line up for class. We went home, dropped off the umbrella (which we never actually needed), picked up our stuff and drove off to work only 15 minutes behind normal schedule.

(Cross-posted from LiveJournal, originally linked in the list below.)

  • It’s like raaaaaain/on Election Day. #
  • #votereport #good Only 30 minute wait, no problems with machine around 7am in Orange County, CA. No idea what it’s like now, though. #
  • Voting freebies: Might hit Ben & Jerry’s, but don’t see much point in a plain coffee at Starbucks. Maybe if they offered a mocha. #
  • Ah, this would explain the 4-hour delay on my “I Voted!” tweet. #
  • Wow… 38% of registered voters in Los Angeles County had cast ballots by noon. #
  • Deep pink clouds at sunset. Camera turns them orange. #

Update: It’s been a while, so I don’t remember for sure if this is the right photo, but the date’s correct and it fits the description.

Sunset clouds

Uh, that’s a negative

The Los Angeles Times website had an interesting way of describing the results of yesterday’s state election:

No, No, No, No, No, No, No, No

It’s hard to believe that all eight propositions failed. Even the four Orange County measures failed. Every item on the ballot in our district was rejected!

On a related note, I still don’t like the voting machines we have in OC. The interface is cumbersome and the display is godawful slow. The controls consist of a dial, which moves the cursor, and a button, which selects the current item.

The display is so slow you can watch it redrawing the title and summary of a ballot item when it highlights it. First the rectangle turns blue, then it redraws the text, line by line, in white. It’s like watching print preview in Word Perfect 5.1 for DOS on a 386. You just don’t see that kind of performance on modern computers unless they’re massively bogged down.

As for trying to use the machine, it’s kind of like entering your name in the high score list on an arcade video game with only a trackball and a fire button. I’m sure they chose it for durability reasons—a touch screen would be much more usable, but much easier to break—and went with the low-powered processor to keep the costs down.

I actually liked the punchcards we had before. It was so much more satisfying to slam down that lever.

Thunderous Thought

A loud clap of thunder sent half the office to the windows about 20 minutes ago, and prompted cries of “Save now!” That got me thinking. In theory, we’re supposed to have e-voting in today’s election. Are the voting machines on UPSes? If the polling place loses power, is there any kind of backup to (a) let people vote during the blackout, and (b) make sure none of the already-collected votes are lost?

Assuming the polling place does have power when I get there, I’ll have to ask.