California’s secretary of state on Friday approved Los Angeles County’s new publicly owned computerized voting system — a first of its kind for the nation — but is requiring modifications to address serious security and technical problems identified in testing.
Secretary of State Alex Padilla is also requiring that all polling stations offer voters the option of using hand-marked paper ballots in the March 3 presidential primary in the nation’s most populous county.
His office also notes in a statement on its conditional certification that an estimated 63% of county voters will be voting by mail using hand-marked paper ballots during the primary.
Election security experts say all U.S. voters, unless hindered by disabilities, should use hand-marked paper ballots that are available for audits and recounts. Instead, only about 70% do, and elections in the U.S. are dominated by t hree voting equipment and services companies that control nearly 90 percent of the market. Their black-box touchscreen systems have been widely criticized by computer scientists as highly vulnerable to tampering.
A subsidiary of one of those companies, Election Systems and Software of Omaha, Nebraska, was blamed by an outside audit for sloppy system integration that left 118,000 names off printed voter rolls in Los Angeles County during the 2018 primary.
The county had already decided by then to buck the national trend and ambitiously build its own system from the ground up — at a cost of up to $280 million — that would give voters the freedom to cast ballots at any available voting center. But many voting integrity activists have rejected the product, dubbed Voting System for All People (VSAP), in large part because it relies on computerized ballot-marking devices, and they worry it could be hacked.
Some experts also objected to the company awarded the VSAP development contract, Smartmatic, a voting technology company with roots in Venezuela. Their questions included concerns about the reliability and transparency of the company’s systems.
Smartmatic referred questions about VSAP to county officials and had no further comment.
California has among the nation’s most rigorous election equipment certification regimes and requires independent forensic testing including attempted hacking. In the case of the VSAP system, testers found a series of problems that made its system vulnerable to unauthorized access. Their report said "seals, locks, labels and sensors can all be bypassed" on the system, and the ballot box can be opened without detection — meaning ballots can be inserted or removed. They also determined that "unrestricted access to, and the ability to boot from, the USB port allows access to data" that could thus be tampered with.
Padilla is requiring modifications to address those problems and mandating the use of state-approved locks and seals to prevent and detect tampering — and the training of poll works in how to clear ballot jams.
“We are confident that the county can meet or exceed the requirements,” Sam Mahood, a spokesman for Padilla, said via email.
But Susan Greenhalgh of the National Election Defense Coalition, said Friday that the testing shows the VSAP system is far from meeting California's own stringent security standard, the public's expectation or the terms of the contract.
“It's faulty at best and dangerously naive at worst,” she said of Padilla's certification. “LA taxpayers should be getting a system that far exceeds commercially available systems."
Another major complaint has been the system’s usability. For many races with multiple candidates, not all fit on a single screen and a “more” button has to be pressed for additional choices. That produces a second screen.
Beverly Hills councilman Dr. Julian Gold called the multiple-screen layout incredibly cumbersome and deceptive — favoring candidates on the first screen — and says his and other municipalities decided to sue if the system was certified.
This story has been revised to note that the Los Angeles County voting system was developed by Smartmatic, a voting technology company with roots in Venezuela, and that the objections involved concerns about the reliability and transparency of its systems. This version of the story also includes a response from Smartmatic.