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Get Out The Vote: Inclusive and Accessible Voting in LA County

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Emily DiMatteo
July 31, 2021

As technologies for voting systems continue to develop and various communities continue to face issues including low voter turnout, direct citizen input about the voting process is critical. The Voting Systems Assessment Project (VSAP) in Los Angeles (LA) County, California offers insight into how modernizing voting systems can be fueled by public participation and ultimately creates a more accessible experience for voters.

With an outdated voting system, LA County needed to modernize its infrastructure and address community concerns. Since creating its voting system almost 50 years prior, the county had experienced a large increase in its voting population. This led to demographic changes and issues with the system’s accessibility, most notably with limited language offerings and barriers for people with disabilities. Working to address these problems, VSAP began in 2009 and spanned across 10 years, supported through funding from the Voting Technology Project (run by The California Institute of Technology and Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and the James Irvine Foundation.

Participant selection and surveys were a critical beginning for the program, with a commitment to citizen engagement and participation throughout its lifespan. Inclusive outreach took on a variety of forms including voter and poll worker surveys held online and over the phone, and in a variety of languages to ensure maximum citizen engagement. These public opinion surveys gathered input about the existing voting system and proposed several solutions to which citizens could react. For example, respondents from the disability community were largely concerned with the new voting system’s ease of access, while others argued for adding various language options in the voting machines. Such feedback and opinions allowed the project to consider multiple perspectives and create a baseline of citizen input.

VSAP also created focus groups with various underrepresented communities in the county including immigrant voters, voters with disabilities and young voters. There were also separate focus groups conducted with local election officials and staff. The focus groups highlighted key opinions shared by voters, such as the need to include citizens in the county’s various decisionmaking processes and the high value the community placed on the right to vote. Participants also expressed the need for polling stations to be conveniently located, in addition to offering alternative voting methods like absentee ballots. Extra voting time to complete ballots and the ease of voting were both critical considerations for voters with disabilities.

The results of the surveys and focus groups were analyzed by local election committee members and other stakeholders to evaluate the community’s priorities and consensus. Subsequent phases of the project included design and engineering, certification and implementation of the new voting system. The project’s advisory committee and technical committee were major stakeholders and participated in various phases of the project alongside citizens.

Key outcomes from VSAP included creating new LA County voting centers with updated technology and the option for early voting and vote-by-mail. The new voting system featured a redesigned ballot marking device and touchscreen where the size and font of print could be adjusted, which was especially useful for voters with disabilities. The updated system also added 10 new languages spoken within LA County, in addition to technological advances such as the use of cellphone QR codes. The voting process also was restructured with other accessible features including new audio options and increased wheelchair accessibility in voting booths. Overall, these redesigned elements were put to use in the 2018 midterm elections, resulting in a large increase in voter turnout compared to previous years.

Although projects like modernizing voting systems are complex and multifaceted, VSAP shows that citizen input and participation can lead to substantive accessible improvements for voters and the community overall. VSAP offers an important model for communities across the United States to utilize participatory methods in updating and revitalizing voting systems, which ultimately can protect and promote the right to vote for all citizens. 

To learn more about this case visit https://participedia.net/case/5548. To read about other innovative applications of public participation, visit www.participedia.net.

Author: Emily DiMatteo is pursuing and MA and a Certificate of Advanced Study in the European Union & Contemporary Europe at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University. She is passionate about the empowerment and inclusion of people with disabilities, with a large focus on international disability policy. Prior to her graduate studies, she completed a Fulbright U.S. Student Scholarship in the Czech Republic from 2019-2020. She received her Honors Bachelor of Arts in Economics from Villanova University in December 2018.

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