SF received $1.5 million to explore online voting. Critics think it’s a horrible idea

Letter to Supervisors blasts Department of Technology

San Francisco’s Department of Technology obtained a $1.5 million federal grant to explore online voting. That didn’t go over too well with voting experts.

In a scathing letter delivered to the Board of Supervisors Tuesday, a long list of election experts blasted The City’s Department of Technology on Tuesday, calling it illegal, a serious security risk and lacking in transparency.

“We are writing to you today with grave concerns regarding an initiative of the San Francisco Department of Technology,” the letter reads, citing a pilot program for “an electronic ballot return system, which is not permitted under California law.”

The letter is signed by the California Voter Foundation, National Voting Rights Task Force, Larry Diamond of the Hoover Institution and Freeman Spogli Institute at Stanford, along with Lowell Finley, a former California deputy secretary of state, among others.

The project seeks an online program to verify the identities of disabled voters, who could then vote online. City paperwork from last April shows the San Francisco Department of Technology obtained a $1.5 million federal grant to pursue the online voting project on behalf of 11 other California counties. Elections Director John Arntz said at the Elections Commission meeting on Wednesday that the project was intended to explore voting solutions for citizens with accessibility issues who cannot easily vote in person, not to develop an online voting system.

The experts express alarm at “the serious and unsolved security vulnerabilities” of online voting, a view shared by many other voting experts. Last year the federal government’s top election security agency, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, warned that “electronic ballot return is high risk” and “faces significant security risks to voted ballot integrity, voter privacy, and system availability.”

Cindy Cohn, executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, another group that signed the letter, told The Examiner in an interview that “there is a mountain of evidence that the internet is not safe for the return of ballots. This is an idea that needs to be put to rest.”

The letter also alleges the Department of Technology has not been transparent about pursuing the project. “Major project decisions and developments took place without transparency or public oversight or engagement,” the letter says. “We urge you to pause the City’s contracting process for the project, to hold a public hearing on the project, and to consider initiating an investigation into the project.”

Elections Commissioner Chris Jerdonek introduced the issue at Wednesday’s commission meeting. He says his commission was never informed of the full scope of the project.

The internet voting project is, for reasons unclear, categorized under the Open Source Voting project, despite “open-source” not being mentioned in the grant paperwork, Jerdonek, an open-source voting proponent, says. Open-source voting technology uses public computer code to process paper ballots. It is unrelated to online voting. On Tuesday, San Francisco Supervisors began crafting legislation to conduct a long-awaited open-source voting pilot.

The Department of Technology did not immediately respond to an Examiner request for comment.

jelder@sfexaminer.com

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