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LA County Registrar's network extends voting accessibility

LA County Registrar's modernized network uses technologies such as 5G, SD-WAN and AI in voting centers across the county to make voting more accessible to constituents.

Modernized networks are a priority for most organizations, enabling them to meet business goals more efficiently. While barriers like training and legacy strategies sometimes stand in the way, modernization can prove beneficial. That's something Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk demonstrated as it built a network across hundreds of locations to support over 5 million voters.

According to a February 2023 study from Asperitas Consulting, a cloud services company, modernized networks have grown popular because organizations seek to improve network performance, strengthen security and deliver services to distributed workers. But there's a gap between the desire to innovate network designs and actually doing it. The firm surveyed over 250 network professionals and found that, although 88% of organizations are interested in modern networks, a mere 5% have put these networks in place.

More than a quarter of respondents told Asperitas that limited technical skills are an obstacle in their efforts to build a modernized network. Additionally, it's typically difficult to implement new technologies, tools and strategies in a brownfield network.

The registrar office of LA County -- the most populous county in the U.S. -- didn't have to deal with the limitations of a legacy network when it overhauled its voting infrastructure. Instead, it deployed a greenfield network with innovative technologies, such as 5G, software-defined WAN (SD-WAN) and AI, that would modernize legacy voting processes. The organization worked with Cradlepoint and AT&T to build a scalable system that enabled voting accessibility across the county.

LA County Registrar's plan to modernize

Aman Bhullar, CIO at LA County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk, said modernization was important when the organization planned to build a network for the first time. His team wanted to design a network capable of supporting the large and diverse population of LA County to make voting secure, private and more accessible to all constituents, including members of underrepresented communities.

"The new system wasn't just modernizing the voting machines and the infrastructure," Bhullar said. "It was an overhaul of the entire voting process."

To revamp its voting process, LA County Registrar created voting centers with two distinct components:

  1. Voting systems, such as the ballot-marking devices individuals use to cast their votes.
  2. Nonvoting systems, such as electronic poll books and check-in devices.

Devices in the voting system don't connect to the network because the devices function like paper ballots; they provide human-readable results and create audit trails. Devices in the nonvoting systems connect to the network so they can access the registration database and enable users to check in to vote.

"We were looking for a network that is flexible, scalable and, most importantly, secured," Bhullar said. "Whether you're talking about elections or not, cybersecurity is huge. Especially with us providing services to a diverse and big population, cybersecurity has to be inherent in everything that we do."

To enable these high-performing, secure networks, LA County Registrar partnered with Cradlepoint and AT&T to build a hybrid WAN. Technology from Cradlepoint and AT&T helped Bhullar's team build ad hoc and pop-up networks around the county, while LA County Registrar's in-house network team managed the internal networks.

The organization used several technologies to enable connectivity for the distributed voting systems. Most of the networks use 5G or LTE, but some locations use SD-WAN and wired connectivity. The technology used typically depends on the location of the voting center, Bhullar said.

"It also fits in our eventual goal of eliminating the digital divide," he said. "Telecom is so huge, and it's such a diverse population. We want to make sure we include all the communities at a level where we provide our services to everyone in a fair, accessible and transparent manner."

The network also uses AI and machine learning tools in its intrusion detection and intrusion prevention systems. During one large election, instead of network teams monitoring the network, Bhullar said AI tools monitored millions of events of interest.

"That's where artificial intelligence comes into the picture," Bhullar said. "We can see the patterns and see what's going on. So far, [the network has] been very secured."

Modernized network deployment process

When LA County Registrar began to deploy the network in March 2020, it was a quick process. Before the deployment began, LA County Registrar's network team conducted preliminary work to prepare for the process.

This preliminary work, which included site surveys and network load tests, helped the team create a database of the connectivity and connectivity needs for the site locations, Bhullar said. After this work -- which took about 45 days to complete -- network professionals from Cradlepoint and AT&T spent about two days setting up somewhere from 700 to 1,000 voting centers throughout the county. The system was operational for the 2020 presidential election.

"The model has proven to be very successful," Bhullar said. "We have full control, and we can monitor everything to stay ahead of if there's any glitch in the network."

If any malfunctions occur, the network can fail over to 5G, LTE or wired connectivity as backup connections. Bhullar said the network has performed well since the installation of the infrastructure, however, and hasn't experienced any significant errors since it deployed.

"It's not just the technology," he said. "It's the technology, the people and the processes. We've developed our processes around it -- trained our individuals, our staff, our network operations center -- and, in general, the collaboration with various entities is what's making it successful."

Future of network modernization for LA County Registrar

The decision to create a modernized network for LA County Registrar's voting centers has been revolutionary, not only for the organization, but for the election industry as a whole, Bhullar said. LA County Registrar built a secure and private paper-based ballot system for all voters, including those with accessibility needs. This sort of system was the first of its kind, and it disrupted the election industry, he said.

In the past, election technology vendors offered limited options, Bhullar said. With the introduction of LA County Registrar's modernized system, the election industry has progressed, and vendors now offer innovative services. LA County Registrar eventually wants to release its voting model as an open source system for other jurisdictions.

Bhullar said he believes the network is at a stable point but added that LA County Registrar will continue to evolve and modernize its network. For example, the organization, which is currently preparing for the 2024 presidential election, wants to deploy satellite communications soon to build voting centers in hard-to-reach communities.

When LA County Registrar plans to implement a new technology in the network, Bhullar said it will test the proof of concept in a limited rollout and make sure the network remains fully secure before deploying the technology out at scale.

"It's not really a destination; it's a journey," Bhullar said. "With every election, we're evolving, we're learning, we're strengthening our network and cybersecurity protocols."

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