Confusion swirls in San Francisco’s mysterious, ill-advised internet voting project

Officials scramble to explain, but instead of addressing mistakes, one says: ‘It’s all good’

For my last tech column of the year, I’d like to return to one of the great, enduring mysteries of technology at City Hall in 2021: A strange internet voting project and $1.5 million federal grant that no one seemed to want to claim or discuss.

Everything was clearly explained and made right at a Dec. 15 Elections Commission meeting, where top city officials stepped forward, told simple truths, took responsibility for mistakes and explained a way forward.

Just kidding. It is San Francisco City Hall, after all.

Instead, officials told different stories, adding to the confusion of a debacle that should have been openly discussed and dismissed in the first place. This was a case study in the lack of transparency that may be the single biggest problem in our city government.

For the uninitiated, here’s a quick history:

Experts agree there’s no way to effectively secure the practice of internet voting from hackers. And it’s not legal in California.

Despite that, in October Elections Commissioner Chris Jerdonek discovered that four city departments — the Department of Emergency Management, Department of Technology, Mayor’s Office on Disability and Department of Elections — quietly secured a $1.5 million federal grant to explore a tech-based remote voting project to assist disabled voters in the broader Bay Area.

In the proposal, the Department of Emergency Management said the project would include technology to “electronically submit the ballot to a county Election Department.” In other words, internet voting.

That set off alarm bells. A dozen top experts blasted the idea. Online voting would be a huge target for our adversaries to really hack our elections, experts said.

The instigators had a chance to clear this up at the Dec. 15 meeting, but this is what happened instead:

Francis Zamora, the chief of staff at The City’s Department of Emergency Management, told the Elections Commission that “we recognize there is some confusion,” but that can be put to rest because the officials have “made the decision to modify this project” to exclude anything about online voting.

Because the project involves other Bay Area counties as well, Craig Dziedzic, general manager of the Bay Area Urban Areas Security Initiative, a multimunicipality emergency-preparedness body, took the virtual mic. And he unloaded.

“This has nothing to do with online voting,” he thundered, and any suggestion to the contrary “equates to something like a conspiracy theory.”

The chair of the Elections Commission, the unflappable Lucy Bernholz, gently reminded him that “there are direct references” to internet voting in the proposal for the project. (Remember, one of the goals was to “electronically submit the ballot to a county Election Department.”)

The next speaker was The City’s top technology official, Linda Gerull, who made more than $350,000 last year in total compensation, according to city records. She shook the entire Etch A Sketch, wiping out everything the previous two officials said.

The project was to look into “a voting assistance tool. Any sort of current online system” in an effort to help disabled voters verify their identity so they can securely vote independently. “We are very well aware of how to implement this technology correctly,” she said. “We are a leader in the region for cybersecurity.”

As a result, she said, after the revision removing online voting from the plan, “It’s all good. I think the way the project is phased now is all good. We’re here to support the project.”

This project was not “all good.” An illegal and insecure internet voting project for the entire Bay Area was proposed by San Francisco city departments that acquired federal funding but never fully disclosed the scope to relevant city officials or cybersecurity experts.

Asked if she believed the project was handled well, Gerull wrote in an email, “I was clear that the intent was to allow disabled residents to independently identify and authenticate themselves which is the first step to securely using automated systems.”

“The project will proceed in 2022,” Gerull wrote, “and will also include other jurisdictions besides SF, which is great.”

One person who does not think the project was “all good” and “great” is San Franciscan Barbara Simons, a Berkeley Ph.D. in computer science and former Stanford professor who was appointed by two U.S. senators to the federal government’s Election Assistance Commission Board of Advisors.

“This proposal was, in fact, about internet voting,” she told the Elections Commission at the meeting. “Internet voting is fundamentally insecure.”

Simons said the shadowy project was extremely risky. “If this hadn’t been caught, if internet voting had somehow been implemented in the greater Bay Area, it would have opened a Pandora’s box for a lot of people who would like to impact our elections.”

Transparency is a huge issue at a City Hall recovering from a widespread corruption scandal. Let’s do better in ‘22.

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