By Tim Reid
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - As he looks ahead to California's March 3 Democratic primary, Neal Kelley is having sleepless nights.
Kelley is the elections chief for Orange County, part of a wave of California counties rolling out sweeping new balloting procedures affecting millions of voters in the nation's most populous state.
He has good reason to be worried.
Memories of the chaos that plagued Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses on Feb. 3 have election officials nationwide looking to avoid similar embarrassment. Iowa's results were delayed for days, in part because of the failure of an unproven vote-counting app.
Some mammoth California counties are unveiling their own new voting technology. They're also eliminating thousands of polling places in the hopes that voters will make use of expanded mail-in balloting or take advantage of extended early in-person voting.
The stakes are high. With 415 delegates up for grabs – the largest haul in the country, accounting for more than 20% of the 1,991 delegates a candidate must win to secure the Democratic nomination on the first ballot – California will have considerable influence in choosing the eventual nominee. Its early primary this year will give the Golden State even more sway. Four years ago, its primary was held in June.
That also means a California-sized screw-up would dwarf the dysfunction in Iowa.
“I’m not going to sit here and say nothing can go wrong,” Kelley said. “It’s a transition to a whole new system of voting. I am getting very little sleep.”
NEW MACHINES, NEW ISSUES
California’s shift stems in part from a 2016 state law known as the Voter’s Choice Act aimed at making voting easier and more flexible for the state’s 20.5 million registered voters. California’s 58 counties can choose whether to participate. Five did so in the 2018 election cycle. Another 10 are making the leap this year. Combined, they account for half of California's electorate.
Los Angeles County - the state's largest county with 5.4 million registered voters - has embarked on a parallel modernization program of its own. Part of its effort includes new voting machines, which are already drawing scrutiny.
The city of Beverly Hills in January filed a lawsuit demanding changes to the new touch-screen system, which displays just four candidates at a time. To see additional candidates voters must navigate a “confusing series of steps” that raises the risk they won’t see all the available choices, the lawsuit alleges. For example, California's Democratic primary ballot lists 20 presidential candidates, only eight of whom are still in the race.
A ruling is not expected before the March 3 primary, according to Beverly Hills City Attorney Laurence Wiener.
Mike Sanchez, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk, the office in charge of elections, declined to discuss the lawsuit. He said the agency held a mock election in September to test the new equipment and made improvements based on user feedback, including upgrades to the buttons that help voters navigate the candidate lists.
Orange County, too, is introducing new digital voting machines, albeit by a different manufacturer. Kelley, the county’s registrar of voters, said there are large prompts at the bottom of each screen as well as “ultra-clear” orange scroll buttons to ensure voters can see all the candidates.
The new electronic voting machines in Los Angeles and Orange counties do not themselves count ballots. After voters key in their choices, the machines print out paper ballots showing their selections. Once satisfied, voters place their completed ballots into drop boxes in the machines. The ballots are later collected by election workers and taken to a secure location where they are counted via a central tally system. Voters are not required to use the machines; they can fill out paper ballots by hand if they prefer.
New technology is just the beginning. Traditional polling places have been replaced by so-called Voting Centers that election officials say will be larger and better-staffed. Early in-person voting at some of these facilities began on Feb. 22. Voting Centers will offer same-day registration, even on election day. Voters will no longer be tied to a single polling place near their homes, rather they can cast ballots at any Voting Center in their county.
In addition, election officials sent ballots to all registered voters in participating counties in the hopes of encouraging more people to vote by mail.
FEWER POLLING PLACES
The tradeoff is that there will be markedly fewer polling places. In Los Angeles County, for example, there will be about 970 Voting Centers open for next month’s primary, less than a quarter of the 4,500 polling places that were operating during the 2016 primary. Election officials are betting so many people will vote by mail or head to a Voting Center early that fewer sites will be needed on election day.
Los Angeles County’s Sanchez said the county has made a major effort to educate voters, including direct mailings to their homes and informational spots across a host of media.
Still, getting the word out has been a challenge, said Marilu Guevara, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Los Angeles.
“My concern is we have such a large number of voters and election day will come and they will show up at their old polling places, or will be unaware of the new voting system,” Guevara said. “A lot of voters have still not heard about the changes. I know that. I’m talking to people.”
Lee Jackson is among the confused. A resident of La Habra Heights in Los Angeles County, the 45-year-old business development consultant said he intends to vote in the Democratic primary. But he has only "vaguely" heard about this year's changes and isn't sure where to find the nearest Voting Center.
In addition, Jackson said he is registered as “No Party Preference,” a designation chosen by about one in four California voters. The state’s Democratic Party allows unaffiliated voters to participate in its primary, but they must specifically request a Democratic ballot with the names of the party’s presidential candidates.
“Boy, I had no idea about that,” said Jackson, 45.
Rick Hasen, an elections expert at the University of California Irvine School of Law, and the author of a recent book entitled “Election Meltdown,” said it was “unfortunate” that California is introducing so many changes in such an important and closely watched primary.
“There is real potential for voter confusion, with new polling places, new timings, and new machines,” Hasen said. “Nobody wants to be the next Iowa. Ideally you would try these changes in an election that has a lower status."
California's delegate mother lode is crucial in this year's presidential nominating process. After watching smaller states winnow the candidate field in 2016, California moved its primary up by three months to give its reliably Democratic electorate more influence in deciding who will face Republican incumbent Donald Trump in the November general election. California is one of 14 states that will vote on March 3, known as "Super Tuesday,” with over one third of delegates on offer in the nominating battle.
Kelley, the Orange County registrar of voters, said his team has been preparing for this moment for the past four years. “This is as close to a military operation as you can get in the civilian world,” he said.
But the sheer number of California voters affected could expose any weaknesses in the system. California Secretary of State Alex Padilla on Saturday predicted record voter turnout in 2020. "As a result, Election Day wait times may be longer than normal," he said in a statement urging Californians to vote early.
Super Tuesday will provide a real-time test as to whether the state's voters got that message, said Justin Levitt, a political science professor at California State University, Long Beach. He said the sharp reduction in Los Angeles polling locations is a particular concern given the region's congestion and limited public transport.
“Traffic problems in L.A. are legendary,” Levitt said. “There are a lot of people wondering how this will go.”
(Reporting by Tim Reid; Editing by Marla Dickerson)
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