SF’s open-source voting effort mired in indecision

Indecision around San Francisco’s open-source voting project has kept it in “a state of hypothetical exploration for the better part of a decade,” according to a new civil grand jury report.

The City’s vision for becoming the first to launch an open source voting system has suffered from having those involved in the effort scattered throughout multiple city departments and not all aligned as well as “most critically, there is not a clear project owner,” the San Francisco Open Source Voting civil grand jury report said.

“San Francisco has taken a decade to debate and assess the value of open source voting. If this project continues, in ten more years, San Francisco will either have created new critical democratic infrastructure or will have wasted taxpayer dollars by perpetually planning for an unrealized future,” the report, released June 29, said. “What separates these two scenarios is strategic multilateral partnerships, open source best practices and culture, and strong commitment under unambiguous ownership.”

The report was issued a day after the Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance Committee, chaired by Supervisor Malia Cohen, struck a budget deal with outgoing Mayor Mark Farrell and Mayor-elect London Breed that included adding $1.25 million over two years for the open source voting initiative.

That was less than the $4 million the Elections Commission had requested, but takes The City beyond what Farrell’s initial budget allocated, just $300,000 for further research.

The civil grand jury report found that “mayors have continued to request more information as a way to put off making a definitive decision on the project.”

The most recent study conducted by Slalom Consulting was released in January. Commissioned by the late Mayor Ed Lee, it was “intended to iron out a clear path forward for the project.”

But instead it has “raised more questions than it resolved, and its largest recommendation was the allocation of $1 million dollars for further analysis. The path of continued indecision is expensive.”

The added funding through the budget deal, however, is leaving supporters of the effort hopeful The City may be moving beyond the indecision at last.

“It’s not nearly what we were hoping for overall, but I’m very grateful for the supervisors stepping in,” said Christopher Jerdonek, a member of the Elections Commission. “It will let us get started sooner with actual development of one or perhaps two components after hiring the project lead, instead of having to wait another year for another budget cycle.”

The full Board of Supervisors is expected to approve the budget later this month.

Linda Gerull, executive director of the Department of Technology, said that the money is being allocated to the Department of Elections and that the Department of Technology “will manage the project.” She added that The City is “just starting to discuss next steps.”

The civil grand jury couldn’t “determine a reasonable estimate for the final cost of developing an [open source voting system], in part because so many factors remain unresolved.” But it added that there are “a number of structural choices that could help reduce cost to the city.”

For Jerdonek, the issues raised by the civil grand jury are no surprise. He has raised many of them himself in the past.

“From the Commission’s perspective, the lack of funds and a commitment from The City to start the project has been the main blocker to additional progress,” Jerdonek said. “Fortunately, that seems to be changing with this latest budget cycle. To provide another example, the Commission has been asking for funds to hire a project lead as the first step since the fall of 2015, but only now does it look like we’ll be getting money for that.”

The report found that open source voting “has the potential to bring the City and County of San Francisco a number of concrete and principled benefits in the long term, including cost savings, increased election security, and public ownership over the critical infrastructure of democracy.”

The security, the report notes, “depends on scrutiny.” “Open source software is not fundamentally more or less secure than closed source software (where the source code is not available for inspection). Instead, the security of open source software increases with its use and importance, because the more people that pay attention to it, the more likely it is that a security researcher or engineer will discover and report a vulnerability within the software,” the report said.

Among the 13 recommendations is to reach out to other jurisdictions to gauge their interest in using an open source voting system developed by San Francisco.

“The security of the resulting system depends on it being used by multiple jurisdictions, and garnering the attention, respect, and scrutiny of the open source community,” the report said.

Joshua Sabatini
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Joshua Sabatini

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