City wants voting mess repayment

The financial-compensation demand that San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera sent Wednesday to Election Systems & Software of Omaha, Neb., listed six pages of alleged misrepresentations and breaches of contract. ES&S defaults were accused of forcing Department of Elections employees to hand-count ballots 24 hours a day for up to three weeks after Election Day to comply with state mandates — costing The City an extra $300,000.

Herrera threatened to file a lawsuit within two weeks if ES&S did not agree to repayment for having “imposed unprecedented difficulties on this city in conducting its election.” He accused the self-proclaimed “world’s largest and most experienced provider of total election management solutions” of “failing to meet state certification requirements” and causing California Secretary of State Debra Bowen to require visual inspection of all ballots.

Rattling the legal sabers is no guarantee that San Francisco will ever see a dime from its threatened lawsuit. ES&S responded promptly by insisting that it not only had met its obligations to San Francisco, but also provided additional support going beyond contract terms, specifically having offered to pay some costs related to San Francisco’s borrowing machines from Contra Costa County.

It probably makes local officials feel better to at least take some action against one alleged agent of San Francisco’s current electoral embarrassment. And the compensation demand also serves as political damage control by arguing a case for why The City deserves no blame for being misled by false claims.

But ES&S machine certification was suspended by Colorado last month, with that state’s election chief citing complaints somewhat similar to those made over San Francisco’s election mess. And for weeks it has been no secret that tallying the Nov. 6 election and February’s early presidential primary were headed toward meltdown. As we wrote in this space just last Thursday, “there is plenty of blame to go around” among recent decisions by Secretary of State Bowen, the Board of Supervisors and City Hall.

All autumn, City Elections Director John Arntz has repeatedly warned that up to three weeks might be required for round-the-clock hand-counting of Election Day ballots because of Bowen’s restrictions on using ES&S voting machines purchased by higher-ups. Arntz largely cleaned up San Francisco’s traditionally inept elections management since taking over in 2003, so he obviously knew whereof he spoke.

It would be an unusual surprise if any defendant ever admitted some culpability and reimbursed The City for costs. But we should not count on it. Meanwhile, the city attorney has made his move and pointed a finger of blame.

So now it is time for City Hall to get serious and make a major effort to fix this municipal fiasco before San Francisco becomes responsible for a three-week delay in announcing the February winners of California’s Democratic and Republican presidential primary.

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