Another setback for S.F. ballot-counting

The San Francisco Elections Department — already preparing for the time-consuming task of having to visually inspect all ballots cast on Election Day — has come up against an additional glitch that is forcing election workers to re-mark thousands of ballots.

The result of problems with The City’s electronic voting machines is that San Franciscans won’t get computerized results on Tuesday, but will have to wait days, possibly weeks, for the final outcome.

San Francisco learned last month that The City’s precinct machines would only be certified for conditional use because state testing revealed that ballots marked with lighter inks were at risk of not being counted. As a result, the 561 machines used at the polling sites will not be used to tabulate votes — meaning all ballots will need to be transferred to City Hall to be fed through the Election Department’s central voting system.

Additionally, the state is also requiring that San Francisco election workers visually inspect all ballots before putting them through the central system, further slowing down the count.

Now, as absentee ballots come in, election officials have found something else to drag the process down: when a San Francisco voter — who is allowed to rank up to three local candidates for the same office — leaves one or more of the slots blank.

According to John Arntz, the head of the Elections Department, ranked-choice voting in San Francisco has always resulted in ballots being kicked out as “undervotes” when three choices are not ranked. But in the past, election workers have visually inspected such ballots and then put them back through the machine.

This year, because undervotes are also caused by marking the ballot with an inappropriate pen, Secretary of State Debra Bowen is requiring San Francisco election workers to fill out, or “remake” a new ballot that replicates the rejected ballot, using the pen provided with the machines — just in case the ballot was also kicked out due to the ink, said Arntz.

“The challenge is the remakes,” Arntz said. “We’re getting thousands of these already; that’s what’s going to slow us down.”

The Examiner first reported the potential disaster in May, shortly after Bowen sent a letter to The City’s electronic voting machine provider, Election Systems and Software, to say her office would not certify the equipment.

Arntz said that his goal is to have 75 percent of the precinct ballots and 65 percent of the absentee ballots counted by Nov. 9, the Friday after the election.

On election night, San Franciscans will only know the tallies for the absentee ballots that came in by Election Day, and possibly the number of people who voted at the polls.

Glitch could affect primary

The problems that San Francisco is having with its electronic voting machines will likely carry into the February election — the presidential primary — said John Arntz, the head of The City’s Election Department.

Mayor Gavin Newsom called the situation potentially “humiliating.”

“The consequence and the significance of not knowing who wins the primary for president is rather more glaring and onerous,” Newsom said. “It’s humiliating because we could have avoided it, but we got caught up in ideology.”

Earlier this year, a decision made by the Board of Supervisors resulted in an extension for the ES&S contract instead of an approval for a $12.6 million, four-year contract with a different company, Sequoia Voting Systems. At the time, some supervisors said they didn’t want to get locked into a new contract because they had questions about the transparency of the electronic voting machines.

beslinger@examiner.com

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