How one company came to control San Francisco’s elections

The long, close relationship between the Elections Department and Dominion Voting Systems

For the past 13 years, San Francisco Elections Director John Arntz has cultivated a close relationship with a voting machine company that has become the sole bidder on The City’s business, while doubling its rates.

During that time period, Dominion Voting Systems has won more than $20 million in city contracts while Arntz’s department has become dependent on the company to hold elections. At the same time, the Elections Department has failed to make progress on a possible solution – “open source” voting technology that would provide long-term “cost savings, increased election security, and public ownership over the critical infrastructure of democracy,” according to a civil grand jury convened by The City.

Correspondence obtained by The Examiner through an open records request shows Arntz, over the course of his business relationship with Dominion, sent or forwarded more than 400 emails to a salesman at the firm, conferring with him on technology projects that could threaten the firm’s business and going as far as forwarding a competitor’s query about The City’s voting machines needs.

Arntz, a 19-year City Hall veteran who makes $260,000 a year and controls a budget of $31 million, has relied heavily on Dominion Voting Systems and one particular sales executive named Steven Bennett, documents show. Arntz disputes that.

“I don’t deal with him often,” Arntz told The Examiner about Bennett, who has handled Dominion’s San Francisco account for the past 13 years.

Arntz also told The Examiner he wasn’t aware Dominion listed him as a reference when the voting machine firm was trying to land new clients. Documents show Arntz was listed as the salesman’s reference on bids sent to state governments, and that San Francisco’s elections director gave enthusiastic testimonials to prospective customers on behalf of Dominion.

The correspondence shows Arntz, rather than working to find alternative election vendors, was comfortable with the ongoing arrangement with Dominion. “You are stuck with me. And I with you,” Bennett wrote to Arntz in January 2015 after confirming he would stay on the San Francisco account he had worked on for nine years. “Well then, all is well,” Arntz replied.

On another occasion, in August 2020, Arntz forwarded to Dominion a competitor’s query asking when Arntz might be in the market for a new voting system. “Hope you did not answer,” replied Bennett, the Dominion salesman. In the correspondence, Bennett called the competitor who made the inquiry, “this idiot.”

Details of the relationship between Arntz and Dominion come at a time when City Hall is under intense scrutiny, centered on a corruption scandal involving improper vendor relationships at The City’s Department of Public Works. It also comes after five years of growing and unproven conspiracy theories concerning voting systems across the country, many of which focused unfairly on Dominion. Trust in elections officials is a national issue, Susan Liautaud, a Stanford government ethics expert, told The Examiner. She added: Anything less than full transparency from elections officials “has a terrible impact on democracy.”

A Dominion Voting Systems representative demonstrates a voting system in July 2018. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

A Dominion Voting Systems representative demonstrates a voting system in July 2018. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

‘San Francisco’s only option’

No other companies bid on San Francisco’s last voting machine contract, which doubled the annual rate of Dominion’s previous contract to $12.7 million over a maximum of six years. “Accepting this increase in prices was San Francisco’s only option,” a grand jury found.

The civil grand jury, investigating failures to develop open-source voting software, found San Francisco has an “obligation to purchase systems from Dominion, regardless of cost or competitiveness.” The grand jury found this situation has come to pass largely because San Francisco uses ranked-choice voting, which lets voters show their preferences for multiple candidates. Only a few voting machine companies can accommodate that.

And San Francisco’s policy on contracts excludes companies in Texas because of state laws targeting transgender people’s access to bathrooms. Those factors limit an already small market of voting machine vendors.

Correspondence shows Arntz and Bennett worked closely together on Dominion’s business with The City. In November 2016, the two worked on language justifying a Dominion price hike, with Arntz helping Bennett write Dominion’s justification for it. On Nov. 29, 2016, Arntz wrote to Bennett, “I am trying to frame the information you provided in a manner that can be included in a budget report. Add or change as you deem necessary especially since this is Dominion’s statement.”

In October 2018, Arntz wrote Bennett that Dominion’s bid was clearly copied from another bid for a different county, but offered to help revise Dominion’s bid submission. “I’ll work on the language for the services tonight,” Arntz wrote.

Working closely with a sole vendor is not ideal, Liautaud, the government ethics expert and Stanford professor told The Examiner. “Normal procurement should have more than one participant.”

Chris Jerdonek, an eight-year member of the Elections Commission that oversees Arntz and the Dominion contract, agreed. “When The City has only one vendor to turn to for an extended period of time, it creates a real risk of becoming beholden to that vendor, both real and perceived.” Jerdonek said.

Jerdonek and other city officials have urged Arntz for more than a decade to pursue open-source voting technology, which could bring more competition. But while sticking close to Dominion, Arntz’s department has failed to make progress with open-source technology, which Bennett has called “a threat to our business.”

‘Ultimate in transparency’

Open-source voting technology would allow cities’ tech teams to work with vendors on voting equipment software, advocates say. San Francisco and many other cities lease “black box” voting machines, such as the Dominion machines used in The City, with software that city tech teams cannot access. Open-source voting equipment allows other vendors to create competing systems, or to innovate on existing ones because it uses publicly available computer code. Companies that build proprietary voting equipment with secret computer code have sometimes opposed it. “It’s certainly a threat to our business,” Bennett told KQED in 2016.

Many city, state and national officials see it as more of an opportunity. “Open source is the ultimate in transparency and accountability for all,” former California Secretary of State and current U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla has said. City leaders have urged adoption of open-source voting technology since 2006. In August, Shamann Walton, the president of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, endorsed an open-source voting technology pilot program for The City with VotingWorks, a San Francisco nonprofit that has worked with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Microsoft.

Arntz opposed the idea. “We’re not looking to do a pilot program,” he flatly told the Elections Commission. Arntz says that’s because an open-source voting system is not yet certified by the state. But that would not prevent development of a system that could be certified. Los Angeles, for instance, has built its own voting system with open-source technology as a focus.

Why, open-source advocates like Jerdonek ask, hasn’t Arntz worked on open-source projects with the same commitment he has shown Dominion? Correspondence shows Arntz has closely conferred with Bennett on the technology the salesman said he sees as a threat.

In May 2015, The City’s top government regulator sent Arntz a just-released city report on open-source voting technology. Seventeen minutes after he received the report, Arntz sent it to Dominion, records show. “I haven’t read the report yet,” Arntz said in an email.

Bennett replied, “I’ll read tonight.”

In 2019, Arntz sent Bennett a link to a story about the U.S. Defense Department building a $10 million open-source voting system. In the article from the tech blog Motherboard, an independent elections expert said the system could “address the well-documented vulnerabilities in U.S. voting machines that constitute a national security crisis.”

Bennett’s response was “Are you concerned?”

Arntz replied that “everything is conjecture at this point.”

Bennett replied, “Today, we move forward as planned.”

‘Relationship with a vendor’

Arntz told The Examiner there was nothing unusual about forwarding a new report to a vendor without reading it. He said he has forwarded city emails to Bennett because, “You want to have a good relationship with your vendor.” He said he’s tried to keep Dominion “apprised of what’s going on here.”

Arntz has overseen fair and secure elections in San Francisco for nearly two decades, many elections experts say. “The Department of Elections is doing a fabulous job,” the civil grand jury found in general. “The Department’s focus is very clearly on the needs of the voter.”

And it’s important to note that a lack of choice in the voting machine marketplace is not a situation of Arntz’s making. In 2019, The Guardian noted “a small network of companies that have near-monopolies on election services.” San Francisco’s contract is in line with Santa Clara County’s current eight-year, $16 million contract.

Dominion, for its part, was unjustly accused of myriad elections fraud conspiracy theories by supporters of former President Donald Trump over the past two years, which multiple investigations have dispelled. “There is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised,” a joint statement from multiple federal agencies found.

Arntz said he is not “against open-source,” but his department, facing three elections in five months, “doesn’t have a lot of time” to explore new technology. Asked if he has done enough to pursue open-source voting technology, Arntz said, “You can always do better. We’ve done what we can.”

But correspondence shows Arntz has had ample time to help Dominion land new business.

‘I didn’t know I was a reference ’

Arntz told The Examiner, “I didn’t know I was a reference for Steven Bennett and Dominion,” and says Dominion has listed him as a reference on bids without consulting him. Dominion declined to comment on that. Correspondence shows he supported Dominion’s efforts to obtain other contracts, including as recently as April.

In an April email with the subject line, “Reference,” Bennett wrote, “Can you please fill this questionnaire out regarding our service for the city? I am answering a (request for proposal) in New Mexico.” Arntz gave Dominion a glowing review on the reference questionnaire, writing that Dominion “more than satisfactorily fulfilled” The City’s needs, and praising their “continued high level of service.”

In 2015, Dominion provided Arntz’s name to the director of elections of the State of Rhode Island, which was considering buying Dominion products. “Mr. Arntz’s name was provided by Dominion in their bid for our voting machine procurement in 2015,” Rhode Island Director of Elections Rob Rock told The Examiner in an email. Arntz enthusiastically endorsed the company, emails reviewed by The Examiner show. “I’d be glad to share my experiences working with Dominion,” Arntz wrote in a Nov. 12, 2015, email. “We have an excellent project manager assigned to the SF account.”

And in 2016, Dominion brought officials from Nevada to San Francisco, where Arntz showed how San Francisco uses Dominion’s products, emails indicate. In a July 25, 2016, email with the subject line “Dominion visit with Nevada cities,” Bennett wrote “We appreciate your hospitality and are not expecting you to do a large scale walk through of your operation.” The next day Bennett emailed again to say, “Thank you very much for hosting.”

Arntz said he did give the testimonials, but that he didn’t know Dominion listed him as a reference. Asked how he thought prospective Dominion customers got his contact information, Arntz said, “I don’t know, maybe there was a phone call.”

Arntz also told The Examiner he “didn’t do any events” with Dominion, or go to any restaurants or bars with the company. But asked about correspondence that shows multiple invitations sent to him for Dominion events, Arntz wrote The Examiner that, “I did attend a few customer appreciation events hosted by Dominion” at an annual conference. Arntz said those events were open “essentially to any conference attendees. I haven’t attended an event for several years.” One of the events Arntz was invited to was at Mix Downtown, a bar Sacramento Magazine describes as having a “rooftop cabana atmosphere.”

Arntz and Bennett exchanged a few emails about beer, hot tubs and golf, the correspondence shows, but there is no indication they engaged in those activities together.

Bennett believes his long relationship with Arntz fills an important need for veteran leadership in a market lacking it. “The Elections Commission doesn’t know anything about California elections,” Bennett told The Examiner. “Most people in San Francisco don’t care about voting.”

“The relationships are so important,” Bennett said. Dominion and Arntz’s department have become a “well-oiled machine,” he said.

jelder@sfexaminer.com

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