S.F. may have to wait for e-voting

San Francisco could end up hand counting its ballots this November — a time-consuming and costly effort — due to certification concerns over The City’s electronic voting machines.

Last week, California Secretary of State Debra Bowen sent a letter to Election Systems and Software, San Francisco’s voting system provider, that said the state would not grant an extension on the certification for The City’s electronic voting machines, as the company had requested.

“The documented problems with the ES&S system and the understanding you had with this office that there would be no further extensions lead me to deny your request,” wrote Bowen, who added that the company could apply for a “top to bottom review” in hopes of getting the equipment approved.

If San Francisco is forbidden from using the ES&S system this November, city officials must be prepared for the possibility that ballots will need to be counted by hand, John Arntz, director of elections, wrote in a subsequent memo sent Wednesday to Mayor Gavin Newsom and the Board of Supervisors.

The cost to count hundreds of thousands of ballots — made more complicated by The City’s ranked-choice voting system — would be roughly $1 million, Arntz told The Examiner, and it could take up to a month. This November’s election includes the mayor’s race.

It didn’t have to come to this because The City had other options, said Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, who voted against extending the ES&S contract last month. In January, the Department of Elections forwarded to the Board of Supervisors for approval a $12.6 million, four-year contract for a new electronic voting system through a different company, Sequoia Voting Systems.

The contract was never approved due to the high cost and the potential for the equipment to become obsolete, said Supervisor Chris Daly, chairman of the board’s Budget and Finance Committee. Members of the public and the board also expressed concerns that the deal didn’t provide public access to the “source codes” — the code that directs the computer how to count the votes.

Advocates of such disclosure say that if the public doesn’t know everything about how the voting system works, the voters can’t trust the system. Skeptics of electronic voting say that hidden workings of the system make it susceptible to large-scale fraud.

Instead of approving the contract, the board eventually approved an extension for ES&S, a move protested by Newsom, who wrote in an April 27 letter to the board that the current voting machines are “old and failing” and that The City was at risk of losing

$5.8 million in state and federal funding available to purchase new equipment.

Representatives for both Sequoia and ES&S, contacted by The Examiner, said they were agreeable to allowing some form of source code disclosure to chosen inspectors, but would not make the information public, due to security and intellectual property concerns.

ES&S spokesperson Ken Fields said the company is preparing an updated version of the software they expect will be finished in time to be certified for the November election.

beslinger@examiner.com

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