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LA County crowdsources ideas for new voting system

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Mark Logan/flickr

L.A. County is the nation's biggest election jurisdiction, and it's also got an outdated voting system. Now the registrar is looking for answers.

Los Angeles County is by far the biggest election jurisdiction in the U.S.. With over 4.5 million registered voters, County Registrar Dean Logan says recent years have called for up to 5,000 polling places and 25,000 poll workers on election day.

"Election day is equivalent to a military operation," says Logan. "We literally have helicopters bringing the ballots back to our headquarters, we have people deployed all over the county — it's a mega operation."

Logan says the voting technology has also become a big problem in recent years; those ballots sprayed with ink dots, the infrared scanners, the tally machines – they aren’t cutting it. The software is outdated, and its hard to find parts for the aging machines. “The issue is not that the software is bad," says Logan, "but that it isn’t flexible."

Logan knew about this problem long before he became Registrar, but he could never have anticipated his biggest obstacle: there isn’t a voting system on the market that L.A. County can adapt. Most counties across the U.S. use large-sized optical scan ballots, a system that's not scalable to Los Angeles. The printing and storage costs would be too high.

So in 2009 Logan decided to start thinking about a new system, made from scratch. He began by talking to thousands of people, from longtime voters to soon-to-be voters still in high school, to figure out what an ideal voting experience might look like. He asked people whether they'd be more likely to vote if it was available at multiple locations, or during a longer period of time. He asked people if they'd like to be able to access information about candidates and measures online through some app.

The answers helped Logan draft a set of guiding principles for a new system, but he didn’t have the money for research and design. So instead he partnered up with a Bay Area company called OpenIDEO, which does design-oriented crowd-sourcing. IDEO co-director Nicholas Waterhouse describes it as a global network of users who share stories and experiences, pitch ideas, give each other feedback, and eventually collaborate to develop the stronger ideas into full-fledged designs.

“We’ve got university professors, students, farmers, nurses, doctors, a broad range of society," says Waterhouse. "The one thing they really share in common is that they’re passionate about these causes.”

OpenIDEO's website is currently dedicated to the voting system challenge, and it is teeming with activity. There are over a hundred concepts so far. One of them outlines an easy voting app for smart-phones. Another suggests coupling polling places with banks or healthcare centers, and still another offers a plan to improve the voting lines by offering pre-booking vote time and informational videos in the wait area. Some ideas will grow, others will not, but it’s all up to the people.

“It’s a very self-selecting process." says Waterhouse. "Bad ideas kind of get ignored."

Apparently it’s also a lot of fun.

“Facebook and Twitter are addictive because of the constant social interaction," he says. "When you receive an e-mail on OpenIDEO that someone’s just built off your inspiration, people describe the response of wanting to get back on the platform as being addictive.”

It’s hard to know whether a highbrow social network can solve a major metropolitan issue, but OpenIdeo has tackled big ones before. One of their most recent projects asked users to design cheap sanitation for a poor city in Ghana. They designed a prototype, and now their sponsor, Unilever, expects to see up 10,000 sold by the end of next year.

Registrar Dean Logan would love to see a prototype emerge over the next few months. But he's also just happy to get the creative juices flowing.

“What’s great about this is that traditionally in the procurement world you have to pick 1 concept, whereas in this crowd-sourcing environment we can pick and choose. If there’s a nugget of an idea in one concept that goes really well with another piece of a concept, we can partner those people together and refine that concept.”

Within the next week Logan and OpenIdeo will have evaluated the concepts and on March 22, a winner — and likely more than one — will be announced. And hopefully they won’t need to do any recounts, either.

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