San Francisco pushes ahead towards open-source voting program

Pilot could break years of stagnation detailed in Examiner investigation

San Francisco is finally making some progress using open-source technology in voting machines, a long-stalled city project that advocates say could save taxpayer money, add security and give voters more transparency in elections.

On Tuesday night, President Shamann Walton told the Board of Supervisors he is moving forward on plans for a pilot program to use open-source voting machines as soon as The City’s November 2022 elections.

“Open-source voting technology would allow The City’s tech teams to work with vendors on voting equipment software because it uses publicly available computer code,” Walton said, quoting a recent Examiner investigation into San Francisco’s voting machine systems.

Correspondence obtained by The Examiner through a public records request showed that San Francisco’s Elections Department failed to make progress on developing open-source voting technology for more than a decade, while relying heavily on a voting machine company that sees such technology as a threat to its business interests.

“It’s been a long effort in San Francisco to implement open-source voting,” Walton told The Examiner in an email. “San Francisco should be an innovator when it comes to transparency in elections.”

The Examiner investigation found that San Francisco Elections Director John Arntz conferred closely with Dominion Voting Systems, once forwarding the company a city report on open-source voting technology before he had read the report himself.

Dominion was the only company to bid on Arntz’s last contract, in which it doubled its rates to $12 million spread over the next six years.

The City’s desire to adopt open-source voting technology dates back to 2006, according to a report issued by the civil grand jury, which investigated the long delays. The report found the system could provide long-term “cost savings, increased election security and public ownership over the critical infrastructure of democracy.”

Other city, state and national leaders agree. “Open source is the ultimate in transparency and accountability for all,” former California Secretary of State and current U.S. Senator Alex Padilla has said.

But the state has not yet certified an open-source voting system, and The City has balked at exploring the technology, despite funding and urging from mayors and the supervisors. The Secretary of State approved San Francisco’s work on a pilot program last Friday, after a September request from Walton. A pilot run with San Francisco elections could provide a breakthrough sought by the city and state for more than a decade, allowing progress toward open-source voting systems.

The pilot program would be conducted as a joint effort between The City’s Elections Department and VotingWorks, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that previously has worked on voting technology with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Microsoft.

Back in September, Arntz had rebuffed the nonprofit at an Elections Commission meeting during a discussion of open-source voting technology, saying, “We’re not looking to do a pilot program.”

Arntz told The Examiner earlier this month that 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.

Walton said Tuesday night that Arntz is “already working with VotingWorks on details and a contract for the pilot. This legislation will codify that process.” Arntz did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the pilot program.

Despite the lack of progress on open-source voting, 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 report found, in general. “The Department’s focus is very clearly on the needs of the voter.”

Walton credited Elections Commissioner Chris Jerdonek, a longtime open-source voting technology advocate, with pushing “to ensure that our elections are fair, honest, and secure with open source coding.”

Jerdonek called progress on the pilot “a breakthrough” in an interview with The Examiner. “It brings us one step closer to open-source alternatives to proprietary vendors.” Jerdonek said the progress benefited from “having The Examiner shine a light on the conversations around open source voting.”

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