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A public, transparent voting system for San Francisco

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(S.F. Examiner)

San Francisco is due for a new voting system. For years, we have relied on private vendor contracts with expensive licensing fees for software that is highly secretive. Instead of taking on another one of these “black box” contracts, San Francisco has an opportunity to lead the country and develop our own fully transparent voting system.

The system would be secure, affordable, flexible and publicly owned. It would be a paper-ballot system using open-source software running on commercial, off-the-shelf hardware. San Francisco can do all this for a cost comparable to purchasing a proprietary system.

Open-source software is 100 percent transparent and can be viewed, used and modified for free. Technology companies large and small use open source software. Two well-known examples are the Chrome and Firefox web browsers, which many people have downloaded for free and use daily for secure transactions.

San Francisco’s process for upgrading its voting machines has always been to purchase a proprietary system from one of a few voting machine companies. In 2007, the contract for the first four years of our current voting system was $13.8 million. Each year, we have to pay high licensing fees for software that is both outdated and completely secret. If we go the same route again, we would have to pay all of these costs again.

By building an open-source system, San Francisco would no longer be locked in to a single vendor. We would be free to work with any vendor to operate or improve our system. We could buy replacement parts more easily and would have more flexibility when upgrading. We could also collaborate with other jurisdictions to share costs.

Once developed and certified, the system could benefit not just San Francisco but the entire country. Other jurisdictions could make improvements and use the system, and San Francisco could, in turn, benefit from those improvements. The system would be a shared, public good. It would become part of our public infrastructure.

Open-source voting has been discussed for nearly 10 years in San Francisco, and we are now at a point where we can act. In December 2014, the Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution supporting the creation of an open source voting system. In November 2015, the San Francisco Elections Commission unanimously passed its own, more detailed resolution.

The project has the support of groups including California Common Cause, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Code for San Francisco, FairVote, the Verified Voting Foundation, the National Election Defense Coalition, GitHub, and the Open Source Initiative.

San Francisco is in the heart of a worldwide center of technology and innovation, so it is fitting for us to take this project on.

We are seeking funding in this year’s budget to launch this effort, and we hope we will have the support of Mayor Ed Lee and the Board of Supervisors to make the backbone of our democracy — our voting system — a model for the entire nation. San Francisco can and should invest our money toward the common and enduring good of transparent, secure elections whose benefits will ripple throughout the country.

Scott Wiener is a member of the Board of Supervisors. Chris Jerdonek is a software developer and vice president of the San Francisco Elections Commission.

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  • After at least a decade of widespread public distrust of election results, it appears commendable that the city move toward software self-sufficiency and openness in elections– and set a model for others to follow.

    Why not everywhere else?

    I am still trying to understand why the BOS saw fit this week to approve without debate shovelling some extra millions to Larry Ellison’s Oracle for software licenses to keep track of city payrolls. Small change for a big and fast-moving city?

    Elsewhere, I wonder how much the city loses in inefficiency and security vulnerability through the use of Windows software and other proprietary software.

    Through the use of proven opensource software and native talent, could we not do as well or better than we are?

    Turning away from private vendor contracts with expensive licensing fees for software in the voting booth is an encouraging development.

    I hope this is not mere window dressing and becomes a topic of deeper and broader discussion.

  • websamurai

    Transparency in politics, this I’ll believe when I see it.