LA County

Behind the scenes at LA County’s Super Tuesday election meltdown

For Los Angeles County election chief Dean Logan, Tuesday, March 3, 2020 was, to quote a famous children’s book, “a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.” It was Super Tuesday, a critical point in the 2020 election timeline. News reports chronicled long lines at polling places, equipment failures and mad-as-hell voters. Much of the blame, it seemed, landed on the debut of a $300 million dollar, custom-designed system of electronic voting machines, many of which appeared to have malfunctioned or failed completely. But other factors appeared to play a role, as well: The rollout of an early-voting option; and the first-time use of a vote-center configuration, which reduced the previous 4,000 neighborhood polling places to 900 geographically dispersed centers.

But those first impressions, like many heat-of-the-moment media stories, were only the first draft. The real story emerged later. In the days that followed, LA County launched an investigation into what had gone wrong. The resulting 135-page report showed up on the LA County website at the end of April, without a public announcement, and it doesn’t take an advanced degree in logic to understand the zero-publicity approach: The embarrassing problems revealed during the investigation are not flattering to Logan and his operation.

The report highlights system failures that might have been prevented with better planning and testing and they offer a cautionary tale for other jurisdictions as the critical November 2020 presidential election approaches. Key findings in the report’s executive summary include the following facts, followed by my annotations:

  • 20 percent of voters surveyed after the election reported a negative voting experience.
  • 15 percent of voters reported waiting more than two hours to vote.

In the world of election management, those are terrible numbers.

  • Vote Centers were open for ten days before election day. 27% of voters cast ballots in the first 10 days. 73% voted on election day.

Election officials had projected a much higher early voting percentage. They staffed and set up vote centers thinking that a much smaller percentage of people would vote on election day. Some election-management experts speculate that the early voting option—in play for the first time—was not as accepted by voters as had been hoped for, because voters, typically, are wary of any change in procedures.

  • Long wait times primarily resulted from technical issues with the electronic pollbooks (Poll Pads) that are used to check in voters as they arrive at Vote Centers. Even though ample network bandwidth was available, the Poll Pads had issues synchronizing date with the voter database, and the voter search function was too limited for the size of the county’s electorate. This resulted in delays as voters checked in. Also, some Vote Center had fewer Poll Pads than needed to handle voter turnout on Election Day.

There’s plenty of blame to go around, but LA County’s report pins a big chunk of it on the company—Missouri-based Knowink—that programs and maintains the electronic pollbook system.

  • While there was a perception among voters and the media that [the new ballot-marking machines] were not operable and contributed to wait times, generally this was not the case.

Having spent 10 years and $300 million dollars designing a custom-made voting system, LA County’s election administration has a big stake in reassuring the public that they made the right decision. To their credit, in the report, they acknowledge that they made many mistakes, understaffing help desks and some Vote Centers, and not adequately addressing a previously identified problem with the gears in some ballot printers, which caused jamming that further slowed the flow of voters. But “problems” with the new ballot-marking system, they contend, were less about the machines not working and more about not deploying enough of them.

A chart in the executive summary lists the problems and offers potential solutions, The chart illuminates the scope of failings on Super Tuesday in America’s largest voting jurisdiction: Excessive wait times. Short-staffing at Vote Centers. Inadequate poll worker training; Late delivery of 17,000 vote-by-mail ballots to voters. Discrepancies between official publications of Vote Center locations and actual locations. Malfunctioning voter hotline. Problems with Vote Center set-up and deployment of resources.

Between now and November 2020, LA County election officials have a lot to do to make sure none of these problems happen again. To that end, the report includes a to-do list whose succinct bullet points only hint at the amount of additional behind-the-scenes planning, meetings, logistical changes and staff overtime it will take to improve the outcome in November—the kind of grunt work that is invisible to voters, but crucial to the integrity of elections.

They’ll try, because no election administrator wants to be the lead story on CNN on election night, and the vast majority of people in this line of work want to get it right. But there are no guarantees. Election day, no matter where you vote, is a crap shoot for election managers, and things happen that cannot be anticipated or even, sometimes, imagined. Good luck, Mr. Logan.