By Jeff Elder
Examiner staff writer
San Francisco has been locked into a monopolistic relationship with its voting machine vendor for years, preventing both competition and innovation, a grand jury and other experts have found.
Yet this week The City’s top elections official pushed back on an offer of free help from a San Francisco nonprofit to explore new technology and bring much-needed competition.
Longtime Elections Director John Arntz rebuffed the nonprofit, VotingWorks, at Wednesday’s Elections Commission meeting, saying, “We’re not looking to do a pilot program.”
VotingWorks, a nonprofit that was developed in San Francisco’s Y Combinator startup incubator, has worked with the federal government’s main cybersecurity agency on election security projects, and is being used for elections in Mississippi, where the nonprofit journalism news agency ProPublica noted its “seamless performance.”
Despite Arntz’s comments, records show that leaders including mayors and the president of the Board of Supervisors have called for voting machine pilot programs like this for a decade. In 2011, a city task force report on voting technology compiled for Mayor Ed Lee recommended a “policy of San Francisco to conduct pilot projects of alternative election technologies … such as using open source systems.”
Open-source software, which VotingWorks uses, allows the public and computer scientists to see computer code, unlike the so-called “black-box” technology owned by vendors. This allows voters to see how the machines work, and competitors to improve upon the evolving technology. Wikipedia and the web browser Firefox are built on open-source software, as are parts of Google and Facebook. A 2018 report found that switching to open-source technology could save The City money in the long run, make elections more transparent and give The City greater flexibility in vendor contracts.
In an era of election fraud claims, open-source technology can help to squelch bogus claims, experts including Microsoft believe.
The City’s Denver-based vendor, Dominion Voting Systems, has historically been at odds with exploring the open-source voting technology in San Francisco. “It’s certainly a threat to our business,” Dominion sales manager Steven Bennett told KQED of open-source technology in a 2016 interview.
Arntz has bought contracts for years from Bennett, who listed the San Francisco elections director as a reference on a bid Dominion submitted to the state of Colorado. Arntz told The Examiner he was unaware Bennett listed him as a reference. Dominion declined to comment on that relationship.
Dominion was the only bidder for its current four-year contract with The City, paying the vendor $8.46 million, with two one-year options that could take it to $12.6 million.
A grand jury formed to look at The City’s struggles with voting technology found that, due to a lack of bidders on contracts, San Francisco “has a continuing legal obligation to purchase systems from Dominion, regardless of cost or competitiveness.”
Arntz, who makes around $260,000 in total annual compensation according to city data, and whose department has a proposed a budget for this fiscal year of nearly $31 million, said he was reluctant to take on the free pilot because it would demand time and resources from his department.
Arntz also said he was not previously given any information about the presentation. “This is all information I’m receiving now for the very first time,” Arntz said at Wednesday’s Elections Commission meeting.
But Arntz exchanged emails with Voting Commissioner Chris Jerdonek about meeting to discuss the proposal two weeks ago, according to correspondence reviewed by The Examiner. “We had quite a long meeting about it,” said Jerdonek, who invited the nonprofit to present its proposal to the commission. And in a Sept. 10 letter addressed to Arntz and others, VotingWorks offered to let him shape the pilot, and offered free resources and support.
Asked by The Examiner why he said he was hearing about the pilot “for the very first time,” Arntz said, “I didn’t mean to convey I had no knowledge of this idea. Rather I was unaware of any details that people had in mind and which I was hearing for the first time.”
Jerdonek and many other city officials have praised Arntz for overseeing safe and fair elections in San Francisco for nearly 20 years. In 2011, a voting task force noted that, “Under his capable leadership, (the Department of Elections) has conducted well-run elections.”
And the free pilot run by VotingWorks would not be a panacea for the decade of turmoil in San Francisco’s open-source voting saga. The use of open-source technology in elections here needs to be blessed by the Secretary of State. And despite being a nonprofit, long-term use of VotingWorks would not be free — although the pilot program would cost nothing. The non-profit would end up charging The City about a million dollars a year, it says, which is about half of what Dominion charges.
But long-time followers of the issue believe the nonprofit could potentially break a bureaucratic logjam, and a free pilot should not be dismissed.
Alec Bash, a longtime city planner and elections volunteer, praised Arntz for doing a “superb job” but also pointed out in a public comment at the meeting that “a pilot program being so generously offered could be a way of moving things forward.”
Arntz grudgingly agreed to provide a list of bullet points of what he would need to progress on the pilot. VotingWorks said it is happy to meet and work on it. The non-profit’s Market Street headquarters are a mile and a half from City Hall.