Election 2020: A New Ballot, A New Problem

On March 3rd voters in Beverly Hills will go to the polls to fill two available seats for city council. The outcome will affect the final rent stabilization ordinance and that makes this an important contest! But it differs from past elections in another way too: the state’s recent California Voter Participation Rights Act has ushered-in innovations like an 11-day voting period and a new electronic ballot-marking device that will change how we elect candidates.

The new ballot-marking device is the centerpiece of the new voting experience in Los Angeles County. It promises a host of conveniences that were not provided by the old pen-and-ink ballot: voters will make choices via a touchscreen; be able to review those choices before marking a paper ballot; and adjust the font size, screen color and contrast levels for usability. There are multiple languages available too.

VSAP ballot marking deviceHowever the most obvious difference is the metaphorical voting booth itself: replacing the flimsy stand that once propped up a pen-and-ink ballot marker is a new, high-design, high-tech hub for casting a ballot.

Under the old system, a voter would ink her ballot using a paper ballot book and then bring it to the pollworker to scan. Beginning with the March 3rd election, a touchscreen interface will guide the voter through the ballot. It will then generate a marked ballot for scanning. And the ballot is scanned by the ballot-marking device.

Alternately a voter can access an ‘interactive sample ballot’ app running on her mobile device and then sync that app with the ballot-marking device in order to mark the ballot. The process is briefly explained in this video.

Compare that experience with the old-style paper ballot that listed all declared candidates in the 2017 city council election.

Election 2017 ballot
The old pen-and-ink ballot allowed for a view of all candidates — unlike the new ballot-marking touchscreen.

Houston, We Have a Problem

The ballot-marking device, touchscreen and software interface are the products of much design and testing and yet there is one very significant shortcoming: the touchscreen shows only four candidates at a time. The number of declared candidates for our 2020 Beverly Hills city council election is five.

Voting Solutions for All People ballot marking device
The new touch-screen ballot marking machine allows for making and reviewing choices prior to printing a ballot. Notice the screen shows only four candidates. The voter must touch the ‘more’ button to see the rest of the candidates in that section of the ballot.

So there is an odd man out: Dr. Julian Gold, incumbent councilmember and candidate, evidently drew the short straw in the county’s random ballot order and he is bumped to the second screen of candidates. (Depending on write-in candidates, Gold may be the only candidate on the second screen.)

While the new ballot-marking device touchscreen is arguably a step forward from the small type and dense  ballots of yesterday, it requires a voter to affirmatively advance to the next candidate screen to see all the candidates when there are more than four in a contest.

That is a problem for candidate #5 but it presents a bonus for the candidates on the initial ballot screen: voters who do not view the second screen of candidates will unwittingly choose among four apparent candidates, so the odds for those candidates improve because there are fewer candidates that will share in at least some of the votes cast.

How much of a boost these other candidates receive is impossible to predict. It will be marginal for the best-known candidate (incumbent councilmember Lili Bosse) who will benefit from name-recognition and presumably garner a greater number of votes.

However the lesser known candidates on the initial screen will benefit disproportionately to the votes they may otherwise garner. The least-known candidate, Robin Rowe, is not only on the initial page of candidates but also leads off the list. So Rowe’s potential advantage is twofold: scant name recognition means he will disproportionately benefit from having a well-known candidate less-visible on the second screen; and Rowe’s first billing (the good luck of his straw draw) may attract uncommitted votes.

Uncertainty is the Thing

The potential overall bonus for candidates on the first candidate screen is mitigated by a couple of factors. First, vote-by-mail ballots don’t employ an interface, of course; there is no touchscreen or interactive app that will mark the ballot. Those who vote by mail are less likely to miss candidate #5.

And second, informed and engaged voters are less likely to overlook a candidate because they know the field. If they already made their choices, then a candidate with better name recognition will fare relatively better.

But the BIG unknown in this upcoming Beverly Hills city council election is the role that less-engaged voters will play in a consolidated election where both the city council race and the statewide primary is on the ballot. Voters will hit the polls very motivated to cast a vote for the up-ballot races, surely, but how many will take an interest in our municipal election? How many will make a choice based on name recognition alone rather than having considered the issues? How many will make random choices for city council merely because they see some names — but not all the names — on that first ballot screen?

Read our Election 2020: Beverly Hills Goes to the Polls wrap-up for more about this important and unpredictable city council election!