Lawsuit claims new voting machines could favor some candidates

A lawsuit filed Thursday by the City of Beverly Hills alleges that the machines to tabulate votes that are being deployed by Los Angeles County for the upcoming March 3 elections could give some candidates an unfair advantage.

In a statement the city said that the issue is that only four candidates can be displayed at one time on the screens and that the confusion between the “More” and “Next” buttons could lead to those not listed on the first page being overlooked by voters.

Potential for the city’s suit was first reported by LAist, which earlier this month reported the Beverly Hills City Council was considering the action after it received a preview of the machines and noticed the potential for confusion. One of its incumbent members is listed fifth on the ballot, which means he would appear on the second screen and potentially be skipped over by voters.

The county is using VSAP (Voting Solutions for All People) machines for the first time during the March elections, but have rolled them out for demonstrations in the past few months including at November’s California Democratic Party Endorsing Convention hosted in Long Beach.

Voters can use the machines to electronically mark selections, with the machine printing out a paper version of their votes to be turned into county officials. The machines have yet to be certified by state election officials.

The city’s lawsuit is asking for the “Next” button to be greyed out until the voters reach the last page of candidates for each race. It provided an alternative for instructions to be displayed on the first screen to help voters navigate the process.

“All candidates should be presented in an equitable and transparent way to the voters,” Beverly Hills City Attorney Lawrence S. Wiener said in a statement. “As the system is currently designed, a voter may not realize they are bypassing additional candidates. We believe the issue can be easily resolved.”

If the “More” and “Next” buttons do create confusion for voters, it could impact races from President of the Untied States all the way down to Long Beach City Council.

The Democratic Presidential primary will have 20 candidates listed with those with “W” last names like Warren and Williamson being listed on the first page while those with “B” last names like Biden and Buttigieg being listed last, according to the state’s randomized alphabet method.

Long Beach certified its ballot order in December after the California Secretary of State carried out its randomized process and sent over the results to the city. Two of the three City Council races on the March 3 ballot have more than four candidates, meaning that those not in the top four would be on the second page and subject to the usage of the “More” button.

The city’s 8th District race only has three candidates and all will appear on the same page. The 6th District race will have incumbent Dee Andrews and Suely Saro, a challenger who is widely viewed as the top contender to unseat Andrews, together on the first page.

In the 2nd District race, Cindy Allen, who has raked in nearly all of the incumbent endorsements as well as the Democratic Party and union endorsements, is listed first and will appear on page one. The candidates who could be her biggest challengers in March, Robert Fox and Jeanette Barrera, will appear on the second page.

Fox said this issue stood out to him when he participated in a local demonstration of the machines held at the Signal Hill Library. It was apparent to Fox that someone listed on the second page would face an uphill battle because there is no restrictor that stopped users from advancing to a different race before viewing all candidates.

“It’s almost an intentional suppression of the vote,” Fox said. 
He said it would be admirable if Long Beach were to throw its support behind the Beverly Hills lawsuit, but he’s not hopeful that will happen. The tone out of City Hall might be different if the incumbents or the preferred candidates were currently listed on the second page, Fox said.

Barrera was equally upset about the prospect of being skipped over because of possible confusion over buttons and their functions.

“They know exactly what president they’re going to vote for and maybe even what state candidates they support but they’re not as engaged locally,” Barrerra said. “By the time they finally get to the local candidates, it’s like ‘Abracadabra’, let’s pick whichever one.”

She said the person listed first is likely to be the beneficiary of such an approach, and said that under these conditions the prospects of her winning looked “bleak.”

City spokesman Kevin Lee said that the city was aware of the Beverly Hills lawsuit but that any action by the city would require a vote by the City Council.

“The city has not been officially briefed by any parties associated with the lawsuit,” Lee said. “However, we are aware of it and will monitor it.”

A number of scholarly articles have analyzed the impacts of the order of ballot listing with the person being listed first on a ballot designation often being seen to benefit from being listed first. However, those studies were done on paper ballots where all candidate names are displayed before the voter at once. It’s unclear what impact the “More” button could have on election results.

In a Dec. 19 report, Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder Clerk Dean Logan addressed the “More” button in summarizing trial runs of the machines with the public. He noted that the button had received enhancements like a pulsating yellow ring and a gradient effect to make it more visible and apparent that more options existed.

“We believe the refinements and modifications enhanced the visibility of the ”MORE” button from the initial design,” Logan wrote.

Logan’s office did not respond Thursday to requests for comment on the lawsuit.

[Editors note: The story has been updated to correct a misspelling in Jeanette Barrera’s name.]

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Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post.
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