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LA County VSAP System

Emergency legislation signed Feb. 13 means registered LA Voters CAN change party at the Vote Centers without using a Conditional Ballot!

Los Angeles County voters will encounter an entirely new voting system, owned and developed by the county, on February 22. That’s when Early Voting starts. Polls close at 8 PM Election Day, March 3.

The system is called VSAP – “Voting Solutions for All People.”

Its dependence on technology to cast and count our votes is controversial.

But the technology produces a paper ballot. The paper is the legal ballot of record and is counted independent of the Ballot Marking Device (BMD) that prints it. The BMD can’t count votes, only help us fill out our legal paper ballots.

The new VSAP system solves significant problems that were disenfranchising tens of thousands of LA voters in recent elections.

The new VSAP system solves significant problems that were disenfranchising tens of thousands of LA voters in recent elections. Provisional voting had increased exponentially. Obscure mail ballot rules, hard-to-find polling places, and new, vulnerable digital registration rolls had combined to create a dangerous situation. Provisional ballots are counted last, and their results, obtained by scanners reliant on software, were exempt from mandatory hand-audit. Enough confusion creating enough provisionals, could decide winners on unchecked computer counts. You see the temptation to exploit this with fraud.

VSAP ends many of these old traps. Voters can use its new elements with care to maximize our chances of getting our votes counted as cast.

We start with technology: digital sign-in on electronic pollbooks at Vote Centers, of which there will be 250 by Election Day. Yes I worry about the security of the private network that is used (not the internet) that allows us the benefits discussed below. But that’s what we’re working with. So the Vote Center list is here: https://locator.lavote.net/locations-list/vc?id_4085.

And the map here: https://locator.lavote.net/locations/vc

Look for flags and signs. Public input placed them where people naturally congregate: malls, shopping centers, schools, churches.

We can use any Vote Center to vote. No more searching for a single polling place on a single day – Election Day — in order to be on the rolls or else vote provisional. All electronic pollbooks have all LA’s registered voters and they attach to printers that issue the correct ballot style for any of LA’s 4000 precincts, via a QR code that embeds your precinct contests but no other identifying information. What would be the “incorrect” style? A ballot with the wrong precinct contests embedded, a ballot belonging to a precinct other than the one where you’re a resident. There are important contests on the primary ballot that change by precinct: city council seats and Board of Supervisors among others. All lists of candidate names rotate to different positions by precinct. Why? To prevent the same candidates from enjoying the proven statistical advantage of being at or near the top of the list.

We take the blank ballot and insert it into a touchscreen Ballot Marking Device. It reads the precinct code and the screen begins displaying our contests and candidates. We touch our Selections to choose what will be printed on our paper ballot.

This is why confusion arises about VSAP being “touchscreen voting” that has “abandoned ink and paper” as I heard on public radio. No: the VSAP BMD creates a paper ballot. It does not count. It only prints the ballots that will be counted by scanners starting on Election Night.

Diebold and other private vendors sold touchscreen voting machines throughout the 2000s that lethally abandoned the paper ballot. Those touchscreens – Direct Record Electronic – were not just used for casting votes but for counting them – invisibly, internally, secretly. Paper ballots were gone. Some machines showed a paper “trail” to voters. They couldn’t touch it; it was under glass. Voters rarely checked it and election offices rarely used it except in states that demanded paper audits.

Again – the VSAP BMD does not count or record votes. It prints them on paper. Votes are counted by the VSAP tally system – a central scanner in one secure location – on Election Night. It’s illegal to count before then. The paper ballots are subjected to California’s mandatory hand-audit of 1% to check the scanner’s accuracy.

During the count, the VSAP scanner takes a photo – a ballot image – of each paper ballot and links it to its image with a matching unique ID number. A random match of ballots and images could be performed later to statistically verify that neither source is corrupted. Public requests for the ballot image file will allow citizens to redundantly count the images as verification of official results.

As now, the mandatory post-election statistical audit of 1% of ballot batches, to check scanner accuracy, will be done by hand at the Registrar’s.

At the Ballot Marking Device, when voters are finished making Selections in all contests, the screen shows “Let’s Review” with a summary list of all contests and your selected candidates – or the words No Selection.

Here we encounter another problem that has already attracted a lawsuit for VSAP.

To view everything that will be printed on your paper ballot, you must scroll down the screen by pressing the MORE button at the center bottom of the screen. However, there’s also a NEXT button, lower right, that changes the screen – taking you out of “Review” to a page asking “Ready To Print?” From there, if you’ve approved your summary list, you’d press “Yes, I’m Ready to Print.”

But maybe you didn’t see your whole summary list. You didn’t use MORE.

And if you hadn’t seen it during the Selections process, either, you missed some candidates in crowded contests – because one screen can’t show them all. You must use MORE to see them all; NEXT takes you out of that contest and into another. If you didn’t vote because you left a contest without seeing the candidate you wanted, will you notice when you see No Selection in that contest during Review? Will you hit the CHANGE button to go back to make a Selection? Will you see the MORE button then? Perhaps you selected a candidate you didn’t really want because you never saw the one you preferred. Would you CHANGE then, having found the MORE button?

In testing, many voters used NEXT to view more candidates but never saw them. They began voting in the next contest and never looked back.

This glaring design flaw was a failed attempt to comply with California election law that forbids using ballot design to “force” voters towards, or away from, any particular candidates. This seemingly reasonable idea renders the BMD lethal. We voters are “forced” into making obvious mistakes rather than being “forced” not to make them. NEXT should have been rendered inoperable until MORE was discovered to show voters full contest lists.

Registrar Dean Logan had the MORE re-designed after testing. It is now in a yellow ring of light that pulses, at the bottom of the screen which fades slightly to indicate continuation, not ending.

This year, the presidential contest comes at the end of the ballot, in order to encourage voters to engage with local issues. At the end of the summary Review, concluding after the presidential Selection, NEXT takes us to “Ready to Print Ballot?” screen. If we touch “Yes, I’m Ready To Print” the BMD will print the voted ballot and it will slide onto a tray in front of us, for us to read and verify as the screen shows “Ready to Cast Ballot?” When and if we approve the paper ballot, we hit “Yes, I’m Ready To Cast My Ballot” and it slides backwards into the BMD’s lockbox.

If we don’t approve, we pick up the ballot, take it to a staffer for voiding, and get another blank ballot to start over. If you suspect the BMD made an error, don’t use that one again and have it checked before anyone else does.

Watch the process here: https://youtu.be/CGLE0fkBc4c

At the end of the voting day, the paper ballots are removed from the lockboxes and their number reconciled with the number of voters who signed in that day. (This is to prevent paper ballot box stuffing.) No votes are counted at Vote Centers; again, it’s illegal to count votes before all polls close. The ballots are put in a larger ballot box that is locked and driven by two people – never one- to a Drop Off location (there are 20) that is under video surveillance. The ballot boxes are loaded on trucks and transported to the central tally location in Norwalk. At 8 PM on Election Night, counting starts there on VSAP scanners.

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Observers can watch the tally, and the subsequent selection and hand-audit of 1% of the ballot batches from the Vote Centers. They are mixed precinct ballots but each batch is 1000 ballots. Votes from all contests have to be included before the audit is complete, even if it goes past 1% of batches randomly chosen.

Ballots are printed on the BMD in several of LA’s different voter languages. On all ballots, an English translation is printed too, for hand-counters.

The scanners count not the text the voter has verified, but a QR code – a pixillated square printed by the BMD along with the human-readable text – that is embedded with the ballot information: our votes. This is a legal problem. Human eyes can’t verify that the QR code is correct – yet that’s what’s counted. What if it’s embedded with different information than we voters can read and verify?

Naivete about what can happen, if election thieves are determined, is dangerous. Therefore I’m paying attention to the two ways presently that voters can check the accuracy of our QR codes. They’re not perfect. Both rely on technology. But they can work:

  • Take your voted ballot to another BMD and insert it. The screen shows “This is a Voted Ballot” and the image of your paper ballot. If the image is identical to the paper (maybe take a phone picture of your paper ballot before doing this) the QR code is accurate. Because that’s what’s creating the picture.
  • Scan the QR code with a scan app on your phone. It won’t bring up a picture. You’ll get several lines of seemingly random numbers and letters. What are they? They’re the county’s number/letter identifiers for each Selection on the ballot. Check them against the number/letter identifiers beside each Selection on your paper ballot. If the identifiers are in the same sequence as the identifiers of what you voted for on your paper ballot, the QR code is embedded accurately for the scanner. See the paper ballot image with its identifiers here: https://vsap.lavote.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/VSAP_QR-Code-Security.pdf

If anything is out of sequence or just plain wrong, take the ballot to a staffer. Start over and have the BMD taken out of service to be checked.

The identifier sequence is difficult to read. Activists are working on a phone app that will translate it back into the written text of our voted Selections.

A lot of steps! Vulnerable technology! Clearly, the best use of VSAP paper ballots is to hand-count the text we voters verify! We can push VSAP in that direction.

But VSAP ends the problem that I saw trap most voters – mostly young – into provisional voting for the over-a-decade I’ve been a pollworker. The obscure “Surrender Rule” – it didn’t even have a name when I first discovered it – meant voters registered VBM (Vote By Mail) on the roster had to bring in their unvoted mail ballot or else they had to vote provisional. So many didn’t know they were signed up VBM – perhaps an over-enthusiastic canvasser had registered them and foisted them into Vote By Mail status without knowing or telling the Surrender Rule. Some voters had tossed it, not knowing its significance. Some had misplaced it. Many had never received it.

At the Vote Center, any voter finding these problems can cancel their mail ballot and vote then and there. No need to “Surrender” the missing mail ballot. This is a huge improvement.

But there is a caveat: mail ballots still go out. If you’re unaware of your status, you are offering ballot thieves an exploitable opportunity if you never alert the Registrar that the ballot hasn’t come to you. Interception and forgery could cause your mail ballot to beat your appearance at the Vote Center, where you’ll find out you were Vote By Mail and try to cancel your mail ballot. If the Registrar has received a ballot from your name with a signature match, it will be recorded that you’ve voted in that election. And your ballot will be out of its identifying envelope, becoming anonymous and read to count starting 8 PM March 3. This is one of the rare cases where a VSAP voter will still have to vote provisional. But for the first time, the Registrar will have evidence of a pattern of trouble for investigation. In the old days, you just voted provisional and never knew if a mail ballot you hadn’t voted beat your provisional to the count – which caused your in-person vote to be discarded.

Avoid these problems by checking your registration. Vote By Mail ballots start mailing out this week (Feb. 3). If you’re Vote By Mail and don’t get a ballot within about 10 days, contact the Registrar and ask for another. Or, until Feb. 15, re-register with a different status. It’s not good to let mail ballots go floating around untethered. They’re valuable; prevent successful theft.

Mail ballot rules also complicate primaries with political party status. Many young voters declined to join a party because they are “independent.” This traps many voters into the American Independent party by mistake. If you get a mail ballot with the “AI”- American Independent – primary contest with people you’ve never heard of, you don’t have to use it! Before February 15, you could re-register online and get out of AI and into the party you wanted in the primary - or register “No Party Preference” (the correct term for independents in CA) and contact the LA Registrar - 800-815-2666 (yes, 2666, sigh)- and request a Crossover ballot for the party you want. Democrats, Libertarians, and American Independents let NPP voters cross over and vote in their primary; Republicans, Greens and Peace & Freedom don’t. This leaves you dependent on the mails. If the deadline has passed, show up at a Vote Center, cancel the mail ballot you might have gotten that you don’t want, and request the Crossover ballot you DO want. If you have your mail ballot, surrender it - but you don’t have to. Just try and make sure it’s not floating around somewhere for someone nefarious to use it. 

With Vote Centers, there is no more reason to “settle” for a primary ballot, or registration status, you don’t want! An emergency law, SB 207, was signed February 13 - two days before the deadline to register or change registration online. It allows voters to change parties at the Vote Center without having to incur Conditional Re-Registration and Conditional Voting. You can vote a regular ballot, as long as you’re on the LA County voter rolls and no voted mail ballot has already been recorded at the Registrar’s in your name for that election.

VSAP mail ballots are hand-marked, showing all contests. It’s the gold standard of democracy. Following all the steps to get one can be worth it. Mail ballots can be dropped off at any Vote Center starting Feb. 22. Dropping off early increases your chances of having your vote count in Election Night results. 

The Secretary of State required, as a condition of VSAP certification, that hand-marked paper ballots be available at the Vote Centers in case technology fails or voters simply prefer hand-marking. 

However, those ballots stocked at the Vote Centers will be the Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot (fwab.) See it here: https://www.fvap.gov/uploads/FVAP/Forms/fwab2013.pdf

This creates a notable problem for local democracy: a voter must know all the contests and candidates for their precinct in order to vote for local issues. The fwab won’t show these contests. Voters must write the names of contests as well as candidates. 

To do this, voters can consult their precinct Sample Ballot. The LA Registrar is mailing them out this week. You can request one by email at: https://apps1.lavote.net/SECURED/e_sb/

You can see an interactive version online: https://isb.lavote.net

You don’t have to use the interactive portion. It will still show you your contests and choices.

For those who prefer the transparency and security of hand-marked paper ballot, the bad news is that fwab ballots must be re-made - on a BMD - at the Registrars, so it can be tallied by the VSAP tally system. Staffers have been “re-making” ballots for years, with Inkavote cards too damaged to go through the old scanning system, and military FAX-d in ballots that were translated into scannable Inkavote cards. This process can be, and has been, observed. The original ballot is kept with the “re-make” all the way to the scanner, and afterwards is re-attached for audit. 

Thus voters must consider if using the fwab is worth its negative impact, if voters don’t prepare for writing in all the local contests that decide so much for our communities. 

And so we come to the end of this piece. No MORE. Only NEXT.

Which is us voting. Carefully, consciously, exercise our right to vote with as much accurate information as we can to use VSAP’s benefits and avoid its drawbacks. The best resource I have found online for this information is at http://laist.com

click on Voter Game Plan

Also http://lavote.net

Click on Your New Voting Experience

mimi-kennedy-200

See you at a Vote Center starting February 22.

Mimi Kennedy