Vote tallying could present another fiasco

With the November election four months away, San Francisco’s new voting machines have not yet received state approval — a problem that left The City hand-counting ballots last year.

San Francisco signed a $12.6 million contract in December to purchase the new electronic-voting machines from Oakland-based Sequoia Voting Systems in December.

Secretary of State Debra Bowen gave San Francisco conditional approval to use its previous machines from Election Systems & Software to tabulate ballots last fall, necessitating a hand-count that resulted in a final tally not being available until December.

The situation led San Francisco to sue Nebraska-based ES&S, which also was sued by the state. In January, the City Attorney’s Office announced a $3.5 million settlement that included reimbursement for $400,000 The City paid to do the hand-count.

That election ended in a very predictable mayor’s race with Mayor Gavin Newsom gaining re-election handily. This November, seven Board of Supervisors seats are up for grabs, so hand-counting under San Francisco’s complex rank-choice voting system — which allows voters to choose up to three candidates in order of preference — could be chaotic.

Sequoia is the only maker of ranked-choice voting machines and getting them signed off could be a close call, according to Secretary of State’s Office spokesman Evan Goldberg.

“Historically, reviews [of voting systems] have taken from weeks to months, and how long it takes depends on the complexity of the system,” Goldberg said. “We’re in the process of helping [Sequoia] complete their application, but it hasn’t been made.”

Sequoia’s ranked-choice machines are thought to be significantly better, but they won’t be legal to use in November if they aren’t approved, said Nicholas Gaffney, a member of the gra­nd jury that authored the report released Thursday.

“The process of getting certified is a pain in the neck, but we’ve got a situation that’s unfortunate,” Gaffney said. “I don’t know what would happen if they can’t use these machines.”

In addition, the grand jury found that the San Francisco Department of Elections does not have a contingency plan for counting the ballots if Sequoia’s systems aren’t approved or they malfunction during the election.

Representatives from the Department of Elections did not return calls for comment Thursday.

Officials from Sequoia Voting Systems are currently testing the system while awaiting “definitive and detailed test plans from the secretary of state,” according to a letter from Sequoia Vice President Edwin Smith to San Francisco Department of Elections Director John Arntz sent Wednesday.

bwinegarner@sfexaminer.com

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