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National

Los Angeles Updates Voting Procedures To Help Curb Declining Turnout

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

What can you do to get more people to vote? It's a question that comes up with every election. And it's a major challenge here in the Los Angeles area. LA County has 4.9 million voters. That's the largest voting jurisdiction in the U.S. But in recent elections, turnout has hit record lows. Mary Plummer of member station KPCC reports on how County officials are trying to turn that around.

MARY PLUMMER, BYLINE: The voting equipment is designed to be friendly.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Thanks for coming to vote today. To start, feel around the edges of your ballot.

PLUMMER: That voice is from a prototype of a voting machine created to modernize elections in the region. A large touchscreen tablet is the centerpiece. Through headphones, users receive instructions like this...

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: To hear the first candidate, press the down arrow.

PLUMMER: It's one of several features voters can customize to their liking. They can choose a larger font size or pick another language.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: (Foreign language spoken).

PLUMMER: These machines are aimed at making Election Day more accessible to a wider range of people. Plus, voters can select their candidates at home on their smart phones, then scan in their choices once they get to the polls. The new voting booths were devised by the design firm IDEO. But the voting makeover isn't just a tech project, it's also aimed at streamlining the current equipment, some of which dates all the way back to the 1960s.

BRIAN IKENAGA: So we have 18 systems here, 36 card readers.

PLUMMER: That's Brian Ikenaga who oversees election tally systems at the County Registrar offices in Norwalk, southeast of LA. He's walking through a large room with rows of boxy contraptions.

IKENAGA: And these are the machines that count the ballots election night.

PLUMMER: Ikenaga says the new voting system creates ballots that are larger than the current ones, so all of this equipment will have to be replaced.

IKENAGA: A lot of this technology we're using now, it's been around for a long time, so to see it go into a more modern state is really exciting.

PLUMMER: These upcoming changes, which have cost 10.5 million dollars so far, are among a number of steps underway in California to try and boost voter turnout. Earlier this year, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill that will automatically register voters through the DMV. Plus, a new law extends the time voters have to vote by mail. Mail-in ballots post marked on Election Day or earlier will now be counted. On top of all that, there's a bill moving through the state legislature that would let voters choose where to cast their ballots and allow several days to vote instead of just one. LA County's registrar Dean Logan says, after mounds of research, it was clear that voters wanted an updated system.

DEAN LOGAN: We can make sure that when people vote, that we meet them where they're at and that we leave them with a process that makes them want to come back and vote again.

PLUMMER: That's a change LA needs badly. Like many places across the country, LA County struggles with voter turnout. Last November, the County had the lowest rate in all of California with just 31 percent of registered voters casting ballots. And, Logan says, improving voter turnout is fundamental to government.

LOGAN: So if people aren't showing up and voting, A, we're not getting a return on our investment and, B, I'm not sure we're fulfilling that core purpose of our democracy.

PLUMMER: LA County's new system is being watched by election officials around the country. It begins piloting in 2018 with full rollout in 2020. For NPR News, I'm Mary Plummer in Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.