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Open-source voting in SF may require match of state, local funds

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Implementing an open-source voting system in San Francisco would cost between $11.5 million and $27.8 million, according to a new consultant’s report. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

If San Francisco wants an open-source voting system that supporters say would be more reliable and transparent than current proprietary machines, it could cost between $11.5 million and $27.8 million, according to a new consultant’s report.

The report comes as supporters of an open-source system, which includes the Elections Commission, are calling on Mayor Mark Farrell to help fund the effort.

An open-source voting system means the software used to tabulate the ballots is open to public view. Anyone with computer knowledge can examine the software code and look for vulnerabilities or bugs.

SEE RELATED: SF’s Elections Commission asks mayor to put $4M toward open source voting system

Current voting systems are proprietary and do not allow the public to access the software. By moving away from them, San Francisco would no longer have to rely on a few voting machine companies, but instead match hardware and software as it saw fit. Proponents say open-source voting will bring more transparency and, ultimately, cost savings.

There is a push at the state level, led by the nonprofit California Clean Money Campaign, to get matching state funding to help San Francisco develop the first-of-its-kind voting system, which could then be used by other jurisdictions.

San Francisco’s state representatives, Sen. Scott Wiener and Assemblymember David Chiu, are working with the nonprofit to try and secure $8 million for The City in the state budget by June 15. The City would need to match the state funding with $4 million in local funding.

To that end, the Elections Commission recently voted unanimously to fund the open-source voting project in The City by asking for at least $4 million in next year’s budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1. And the commission wants Farrell and Supervisor Malia Cohen, who sits on the Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance Committee, to support the state funding effort.

So far, they aren’t.

Cohen told the San Francisco Examiner on Friday that while she is a supporter of open-source voting, “As budget chair, it is inappropriate for me to send a letter on behalf of the Board of Supervisors before holding a public process to examine the commitment.” She added, “We will consider the $4 million commitment through the budgeting process.”

That was after Cohen received an email Thursday from Election Commission President Roger Donaldson, which said, “such a match would reduce the financial burden and accelerate the development of an open source voting system vital to ensuring the integrity of the vote, which is a foundation of our democracy.”

The email continued to say that the system would reduce costs in the long term and “will ensure a system which can be transparently developed, deployed, and used.”

Farrell isn’t expressing his support for state funds, either.

“We are sorting through it right now, both the policy itself and the budget implications as well. We are definitely going to take a hard look at it,” Farrell said, adding that he won’t support state funding until he decides if it’s right for The City.

Both Chiu and Wiener said Friday they were committed to helping San Francisco secure the funding.

“I support implementing open source voting in San Francisco and support the state providing matching funding,” Wiener said in a text message. “I would be happy to support a state match.”

SEE RELATED: Securing US election systems: Why a paper ballot isn’t enough

“Open-source voting systems hold a promise of a more secure and transparent elections process,” Chiu’s spokesperson Judson True said, adding that they are committed to working with California Clean Money Campaign and San Francisco officials to advance the effort.

Trent Lange, president of the California Clean Money Campaign, praised Chiu and Wiener for backing the proposal that “will lead to lower costs and greater security and transparency for all of California’s elections, especially times like this that our voting systems are so at risk.”

Lange said that “it would be very disappointing to everybody who’s so worried about the security of our elections if Mayor Farrell and Budget Chair Cohen don’t show their support for the state budget request in time.

“That could jeopardize $8 million that the County could use to develop the open-source voting system the Supervisors have already committed to creating,” Lange added.

Meanwhile, John Arntz, director of the Department of Elections, is negotiating a contract with the existing voter machine vendor, Dominion, which has a contract with The City that ends this year. He couldn’t provide details, citing ongoing negotiations, but said the voting system costs for this year’s two elections are $1.8 million. The request for proposal outlined initial terms of two, three and four years with three one-year options not to exceed $14 million.

SEE RELATED: Despite call for open source software, SF approves $30M contract for Microsoft products

The 65-page city-funded report by consultant Slalom on the feasibility of having an open-source voting system suggested estimated costs could range from $11.5 million to $27.8 million and said it would take three to six years to implement.

Elections Commissioner Christopher Jerdonek, a software engineer, said he was “very disappointed” Cohen and Farrell are not showing their support for the state funding at this time. He said that a delay in the project only means paying more money into the proprietary system.

Jerdonek said he wasn’t deterred by the new report’s higher end cost estimates or some of the detailed risks, suggesting the project costs could be kept at the lower end of the range.

“There’s nothing in the report I wasn’t already aware of,” Jerdonek said. “Some of the risks are exaggerated.”

One risk is whether an open-source system could be certified by the California Secretary of State.

The Elections Commission also approved the Open Source Voting System Technical Advisory Committee’s recommendations. The committee envisions a phased-in approach for rolling out an open-source voting system, beginning with the components related to vote-by-mail ballots, which account for more than half the ballots cast in San Francisco elections.

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