Supes could revisit voting-machine contract

When the Board of Supervisors declined in February to rule on a contract for new electronic voting machines after the company that makes the machines said it wouldn’t disclose the inner workings of its software, it left San Francisco with machines from a different company that the state would only allow The City to use under certain conditions.

As a result of the conditions — including one that requires election workers to visually inspect all ballots cast on Election Day — San Franciscans won’t get computerized results on Tuesday, but will have to wait days, possibly weeks, instead for the final outcome.

On Tuesday, Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin requested that the contract with Sequoia Voting Systems be brought back before The City’s legislative body.

San Francisco learned in September that The City’s precinct machines — provided by Election Systems and Software — would only be certified for conditional use because testing by California’s secretary of state revealed that ballots marked with lighter inks were at risk ofnot being counted.

As a result, the 561 machines used at the polling sites will not be used to tabulate votes — meaning all ballots will need to be transferred to City Hall to be fed through the Election Department’s central voting system. The state is also requiring The City to hand-mark a backup ballot for any ballot that does not fill all three columns available in a ranked-choice race, said San Francisco’s elections chief, John Arntz.

Peskin said the questions brought up earlier this year regarding the transparency of the electronic voting machines justified holding up the $12.6 million, four-year contract with Sequoia. The election next week is “not critical,” he said.

“The fact is we dodged the bullet for this November,” Peskin said. “In February, it would be hard to pull it off, however … and we’ve got to have it for November ’08.”

The presidential election is next November; California’s presidential primary will be held in February.

Mayor Gavin Newsom told The Examiner last week that “ideology” got in the way of making a needed decision on new electronic voting machines.

On Thursday, the mayor said he was glad to see that Peskin was reactivating the contract-approval process, but added that he wished the Board of Supervisors had taken up the matter sooner.

The Board of Supervisors must approve all city contracts for more than $10 million. In February, board members, as well as members of the public, expressed concerns about locking The City into a deal that didn’t provide public access to the “source codes” — the code that tells vote-counting computers 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 that the system is not susceptible to large-scale fraud.

Representatives for both Sequoia and ES&S, contacted by The Examiner in May, 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.

The City should work with Sequoia to have “open-source voting when that technology is certified by the secretary of state,” Peskin said.

beslinger@examiner.com

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