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New voting system in LA County is needed but poses risks for presidential election

(Andrea Grigsby/Illustrations director)

By Mark McGreal

Nov. 12, 2019 10:55 p.m.

Los Angeles County is ready to bet on a new voting system – but citizens shouldn’t be so sure yet.

In 2020, the country will vote on whether or not the current president will stay in office. But before a potential newcomer is voted on, LA County has decided to make a few changes of its own.

LA is changing its voting system to make voting more accessible for its citizenry. The changes include, but are not limited to, an 11-day-long voting window, the ability to vote at any voting center in LA County and enjoy same-day voter registration.

But the biggest shift is that voting has entered the 21st century.

Voting booths will consist of tablets on which voters make their selections. Each tablet will be connected to a printer that will print out a ballot with the voter’s selections, which the voter can review before officially submitting their choices.

While this is an important change for the future of voting, instituting these changes in the year of a presidential election is risky at best and potentially detrimental at worst. The confusion that this new system could cause would drastically affect results in an important election, and it would make more sense for the county to wait to implement this system until the next midterm election – when possible glitches could better be localized.

That being said, LA has got it right in that the current system isn’t working.

Using the previous system, voters were restricted to casting ballots in person for one day only, often having to travel or miss work to cast ballots at select polling centers – constraints that dissuaded citizens from voting.

And convenience will surely help reverse low turnout rates. The Los Angeles Almanac estimates that only 57% of people who were eligible to vote in LA County voted in the last general election. Reducing barriers to registration and voting is one way to see increased voter participation.

But with some barriers reduced, others arise in their place under this new policy.

Specifically, older voters may be concerned about having to use technology when they vote.

“I just wonder how easy the tablet will be to use because older voters might have trouble using the new system,” said third-year chemical engineering student Adam Key.

Granted, this concern may have been of relative importance five or 10 years ago, but it is less of an issue now. According to the World Economic Forum, 70% of seniors in America are now connected to the internet.

And this doesn’t necessarily mean that all of these seniors will be technologically literate when it comes to tablet usage, but it bodes better for this generation of seniors than the last.

The issue, though, is not one of technological literacy. Instead, it is the precedent set by a technology-based voting system that could prove to be an issue moving forward. Technical issues could affect voting results – which isn’t necessarily a huge problem in a partisan state like California – but they could severely affect elections if they occur in a swing state like Ohio or Florida.

Carter Thomsen, a third-year economics student, thinks it’s possible the technology will cause more problems than it initially solves.

“I think this is a great idea in the long run, but I feel like there will be a lot of technical errors and glitches next year,” Thomsen said.

Technology isn’t foolproof, and new systems sometimes have kinks to be worked out. Some glitches are seemingly small, like a projector not working on the first day of class or a perpetually broken ice cream machine at McDonald’s.

But technical errors during a presidential election could potentially affect the future of a nation. Technology in voting systems leaves the electorate vulnerable to the ever-increasing issues of hacking.

And for one side of the aisle that’s a risk it can’t afford.

John Zaller, a political science professor, said in an emailed statement that as long as the economy remains strong, things will have to go absolutely perfectly for the Democrats to win the presidency.

“As of today, the economy looks solid, so if this continues, it will be a big advantage for (President Donald Trump) in 2020,” Zaller added. “But ‘big advantage’ is not ‘unbeatable’ – the Democrats can still win if things go just right for them.”

With a tight election between a huge Democratic field and increased animosity between Democrats and Republicans in recent years, the 2020 election has no room for error.

Midterm elections, however, represent a great opportunity to test drive new programs. The midterm elections in 2022 would be the ideal testing ground for a drastic change in the voting system.

LA County and California are bound to vote blue in 2020, so errors or glitches in a technical system aren’t likely to change the outcome of our overall votes. But citizens only get to vote for a president once every four years, and each ballot that is cast should be counted correctly. More obviously, less high-stakes elections, like the midterms, are safer opportunities to test-drive a new program.

The times are definitely changing, and those changes are important.

Then again, rolling the dice with the outcome of a presidential election isn’t the change anyone asked for.

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Mark McGreal
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