$12.6 million contract for new S.F. voting system is revived


John Wildermuth, Chronicle Staff Writer

Friday, November 2, 2007


A $12.6 million contract to bring a new voting system to San Francisco is back from the dead, nearly nine months after a Board of Supervisors committee refused to bring it to a vote.


Although nothing has changed in the proposal, new negotiations - and the worrisome prospect of a weeks-long vote count beginning Tuesday - could change some minds on the board.


Board President Aaron Peskin resurrected the contract with Sequoia Voting Systems of Oakland, saying it's past time for the city to dump the aging voting machines it bought from Election Systems and Software.


"The reality is that while we've dodged the bullet for November, the news about ES&S from the secretary of state's office just gets worse," he said. "Clearly, we're not going to be able to keep it up with ES&S."


Secretary of State Debra Bowen allowed the city to use its current voting system in next Tuesday's mayoral election, but she did it with reluctance.


Rather than fix problems that two previous secretaries of state had identified, "ES&S has decided to engage in a chess game at the expense of the voters of San Francisco," Bowen said in a Sept. 14 letter to the company.


But Bowen also imposed a laundry list of requirements for the company and the city, rules, she said, "intended to do what ES&S has to date declined to do - ensure that the ballots of San Francisco's voters are accurately tallied."


Instead of hand-counting 1 percent of the city's precincts as a check on the electronic vote tally, the city must now do that lengthy check on 10 percent of the precincts. Because of concerns about the system's ability to count ballots marked in light-colored inks, election workers will have to check each ballot individually, re-marking those that might not register.


Meeting those requirements will cost the city an estimated $300,000 in additional expenses and could delay a final count of the votes for as long as three weeks, said John Arntz, the city's elections chief. He has warned that the only vote totals released on election night will be from absentee ballots.


"I'm not an advocate for Sequoia, but I'd like to get the contract dealt with," Arntz said. "I'd like some resolution about how we'll cast our votes in the future."


Sequoia's proposal went through the city's regular bidding procedure before going to the Board of Supervisors for final approval.


But the contract ran into problems. Sequoia not only lacked certification for the software needed for San Francisco's ranked-choice elections, but the company also refused to make its vote-counting software available for public inspection.


At a hearing in February before the board's Budget and Finance Committee, more than 20 people spoke. Supervisors Tom Ammiano and Chris Daly refused to approve the contract, arguing that the public has a right to know all the details of how their votes will be counted.


Unless Sequoia is willing to make its software and source code public, "we're still going to oppose it," said Alan Dechert of the Open Voting Coalition, who spoke against the contract. "We want a system that's publicly inspected from top to bottom."


The delay wasn't necessarily a bad thing, said Peskin, who has since replaced Daly on the budget committee.


"There was a great amount of uncertainty about what the state wanted and we didn't want to invest in something and then be told we had the wrong system," he said. Since Bowen's study, "there's much more clarity now."


While the contract hasn't changed since February, "we need to have a fresh discussion," Peskin added. Talks with Sequoia and opponents of the contract could result in a compromise, particularly on the question of opening the voting system to public inspection.


"Right now, we are entrusting our votes to a private company with proprietary software and that's not what we want," said Carol Bella of the San Francisco Voting Integrity Project, another opponent of the contract. "But there are so many possibilities here and we want to see San Francisco take the lead."


It's likely to take until December to hammer out any agreement and there are no guarantees that a compromise will be reached, Peskin acknowledged. Even if the contract is approved, any new machines likely won't be available for the Feb. 5 presidential primary.


A speedy resolution would be nice, but Arntz just wants to see the long-running fight over the voting machines settled.


"I hope to put aside the question of voting machines and move on," he said. "I'd like to spend our time and resources on something else."


E-mail John Wildermuth at

This article appeared on page B - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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