California’s presidential primary offered a vigorous test for Los Angeles County’s new election setup Tuesday, as throngs of voters showed up to cast ballots using the county’s first wholly redesigned system in more than a half-century.
Whether voters would understand the changes, and whether they would work as promised, made the stakes that much higher in an election already described as historic.
Nor were the challenges confined to L.A. By midday, state elections officials reported that 15 counties had experienced problems with their computer systems connecting to California’s statewide voter database. While voters could still cast ballots, the problem meant there was no way to update registration records or show that a citizen had voted. To avoid any chance of someone voting more than once, some locations were asking voters to cast provisional ballots — a fail-safe method of voting in which eligibility is confirmed after election day and before the vote is counted.
Should it persist, the lack of online connectivity at polling places and vote centers, would pose a problem for one of California’s most talked-about election changes: election-day registration, designed to ensure that any eligible citizen can still vote before polls close at 8 pm.
State elections officials did not immediately provide a full list of the counties affected but said Los Angeles was not one of them.
L.A. County elections officials have spent months trying to raise awareness about two of the biggest changes: the elimination of neighborhood polling places and the debut of ballot-marking touchscreen devices in regional vote centers, available to everyone and spread throughout the county.
The task was made that much more daunting by its scale. With 5.5 million voters, L.A. County is the largest voting bloc in California and larger than the electorate in all but 11 states. Rolling out the new $300-million election system was never going to be easy.
Several of the county’s 978 vote centers saw long lines shortly after polls opened on Tuesday.
When Arcadia resident Omar Noureldin arrived at the vote center at the Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, the queue of people waiting to cast ballots stretched down two flights of stairs. By the time he left, there was a line out the door, he said.
“Those people that are in line around the corner are probably going to be there for three hours — if they wait,” he said.
Noureldin took advantage of an election shortcut offered under the new system: Ballot selections can be filled out on a smartphone ahead of time and then transferred to the touchscreen machines with a QR code. The biggest issue he experienced on Tuesday, he said, was the lack of staff and voting machines at the center. He said there were only two volunteers and four functional machines by the time he cast his ballot. His post on Twitter about the experience sparked a reply from county elections officials that they would send help to that location.
Two of the six voting machines at the Eagle Rock Recreation Center were out of order by the time Christian Donovan arrived to vote early Tuesday morning.
“That was a little disconcerting,” he said. “And, at the time, it didn’t really cause a huge issue for me because there weren’t that many people there, but I can see how if there was a large crowd the line could stack up.”
Donovan said the machines that were working were easy to use, though he “could see how it could cause problems for anyone that’s not as technologically savvy.”
Others, though, reported an easier process and general satisfaction with the new system.
Mary Wood, who responded to The Times’ online request for voters to share their stories, said the experience “was such a breeze” when she cast her ballot last week at the Pan Pacific Senior Activity Center in Los Angeles.
“The new system was easy to use,” she said. “I loved that you could review your ballot before submitting it.”
But few voters had actually cast ballots by the time election day arrived. L.A. County elections officials reported a total of almost 249,000 ballots were cast at vote centers in the 11 days leading up to Tuesday. By comparison, there were 2 million people who were not mailed a ballot and can only participate in the primary by voting in person.