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Clock ticking on open source voting effort as SF extends voting machine contract

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San Francisco residents wait in line to receive their voting ballots at City Hall for California’s primary election on Tuesday, June 7, 2016. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)
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San Francisco is expected today to extend a voting machine contract for two years, even as The City plans to switch over to an open source voting system.

An update on those open source voting plans are expected to be provided during the upcoming budget process before the Board of Supervisors later this year as the board is expected to approve the extension today.

SEE RELATED: San Francisco sets sights on open source voting by November 2019

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In the meantime, John Arntz, director of the Elections Department, said The City needs to extend the contract with Dominion, formerly known as Sequoia Voting Systems, Inc., for the two scheduled upcoming elections in 2018 – the Statewide Primary Election on June 5, 2018, and the General Election on Nov. 6, 2018.

The two-year contract extension from Dec. 11, 2016 through Dec. 31, 2018, totals $2.3 million, for a total of $21 million since The City first entered into an agreement with the voting machine company in 2007 through a competitively bid process. There is also a chance there may be a special November election through a local signature gathering effort.

For extending the contract for two more years, The City is waiving the competitive bidding requirement.

The City has allocated in the current budget $300,000 to plan for switching over to an open source voting system.

“According to [John} Arntz, this system will not be ready for at least two years given the complexity of the project, as well as the time needed to receive approval by the California Secretary of State,” according to budget analyst Harvey Rose’s report on the proposed contract extension. “In terms of the current status of the project, Mr. Arntz states that the Department of Technology is currently preparing specifications for hiring a consultant, who will scope out the project requirements and plan for developing an open source voting system.”

The clock is ticking on the open source voting effort because Arntz said that the current system is becoming obsolete and in two years he plans to competitively bid for the new line of voting equipment if open source voting isn’t finalized by December 2018.

“If the new open source voting system is not ready in two years, [John] Arntz advises that the Department of Elections plans to conduct a competitive process to lease a new voting system, removing the need for a large expenditure to purchase voting equipment,” the report reads.

Those who support open-source voting systems argue they bring a greater level of transparency and accountability by allowing the public to have access to the source codes of the system, which is used to tabulate the votes. If The City owns the system outright it could come at a savings to taxpayers as opposed to using a private vendor.

The current machines in place used in San Francisco’s elections to count the votes include “high-speed tabulators” at City Hall to process vote-by-mail ballots and at polling places “an optical scan tabulator that optically scans the marks made on paper ballots and counts the votes electronically when the ballot is inserted and a touch screen unit that presents a digital interface for voters to use to cast ballots,” according to the report.

The report continued, “[John] Arntz states that the Dominion system – or any voting system in California – is never connected to an open network or the internet, thus removing the opportunity for accessing the system from off‐site.”

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