Home > Uncategorized > Thoughts on L.A. County’s VSAP

Thoughts on L.A. County’s VSAP

Los Angeles County, California is doing something quite amazing about voting—it’s a project called VSAP (for Voting Systems Assessment Project). To quote the VSAP site, the goals of the project are:

“to address an aging voting system and an increasingly large and complex electorate. The project seeks a collaborative approach to voting system design that will put voters at the center and maximize stakeholder participation.”

This is a multi-year effort (it began in 2008) in which County officials have thought hard, solicited input from a wide variety of stakeholders, and even formed advisory committees made up of experts in various areas to help them design the voting system of the future for L.A. County. (It’s important to note that L.A. County has more registered voters in it than something like 30 states.)

This is a very Big Deal™ in the voting world, and I am honored to have been asked to help as a member of the Technical Advisory Committee. We recently had a really good meeting where the Committee, along with additional outside experts, had a chance to review the prototype design generated by IDEO and provide feedback. Many challenges were identified and it will be interesting from my end to see how the final design emerges.

As part of this, L.A. County wants some feedback on the committee members’ thoughts on VSAP, and I thought I would answer here.

1) Why do you think the VSAP is important?

From the outside, voting appears like a simple problem, and indeed there are many simple solutions. Unfortunately, all of the simple solutions fail for someone, and so recognition that the problem of running elections is one that takes serious time and effort to address is a critical first step.

I think the VSAP is critically important to elections going forward. While the solution generated for L.A. County may not be the perfect solution for every voting jurisdiction—after all, there are more than 3,000 counties in the U.S., and they have different needs and operate under different election laws—the process used is exemplary. The step of realizing and publicly recognizing that none of the extant commercially-available solutions are adequate for the County’s needs is a critical one. This situation is probably true for many jurisdictions, and particularly likely to become a larger issue in the next few years as many of the systems purchased with HAVA funds in the mid-2000s are starting to reach their age limit. The County’s willingness to not simply purchase an existing system shows tremendous leadership.

Furthermore, the careful and inclusive collection of feedback from various stakeholders, the deliberate process (including experienced professional designers and expert review), and the careful consideration of design tradeoffs are a model for other jurisdictions.

In addition, not only is the VSAP process important, but I think the final product will be important as well. I think it is likely that the system generated by the VSAP process will be the best voting system available in the U.S. (Though there are other systems being generated that may be of similar quality—particularly STAR-Vote—nothing currently deployed at the time of this writing compares.)

2) How do you feel it will positively impact voters in the future?

I think the impacts will be widespread. First, I think it will directly impact voters in L.A. County almost immediately once the first version of the final product is deployed. Voting should be more usable and accessible, reducing error and increasing voter participation. If the new systems enable vote centers, that should also serve to increase convenience of voting and reduce the need for provisional balloting. This should be a win for voters all around.

Beyond that, however, there are other potential upsides. If security and usability issues with pre-marked ballots can be worked out, there is the potential to further reduce the time taken at the polls, thereby reducing lines and increasing access to elections for all voters.

Finally, there are the impacts as part of the last question.

3) How do you think the VSAP will impact the way elections are administered in the US?

I fervently hope that more jurisdictions will follow the example set by L.A. County and spend time and energy considering how to best run elections in their jurisdiction. Clearly, not every jurisdiction has the resources and the will that L.A. County has devoted to this project, but hopefully the final product generated by VSAP will be compelling enough to motivate similar consideration. Even a scaled-down version of the VSAP process is likely to produce results that are improvements over current systems.

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