San Francisco Chronicle


S.F. supervisors blamed for blocking new voting system


John Wildermuth, Chronicle Staff Writer


Friday, September 21, 2007

San Francisco voters will continue to use voting machines...


If it takes three weeks to count the votes in this November's election, the Board of Supervisors should bear the blame, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom said Thursday.


By refusing to approve a contract with another voting machine company in April, the supervisors forced the city to keep a voting system considered outmoded and run by a company that's in a running battle with California's secretary of state.


The decision "doesn't look good today, it did not look good three months ago," the mayor said during an appearance at San Francisco International Airport. "We had the opportunity to do it right, and we chose not to."


While California Secretary of State Debra Bowen has agreed to allow San Francisco to use the voting system made by Election Systems and Software this November, she made it clear in a letter last Friday that the approval was a stopgap measure until the city "completes the process of replacing this obsolete equipment."


Because the city's voting machines can't count some ballots marked in light-colored ink, Bowen is requiring election officials to inspect each ballot for the proper markings before it can be counted. The labor-intensive, time-consuming process means that no ballots other than absentees would be counted on election night, and it could take up to three weeks before the final results are available, said John Arntz, the city's elections director.


But that replacement Bowen wants to see could be a long way off. When supervisors rejected a $12 million contract with Sequoia Voting Systems of Oakland to provide the city with voting machines designed to meet the state's increasingly strict requirements, they blocked the possibility of bringing in new machines.


Instead, the board voted 7-2 to extend the contract with ES&S until the end of 2008.


The board, led by Supervisors Tom Ammiano and Chris Daly, argued that Sequoia should receive the contract only if it agreed to open its software to public review, something the company refused to do.


"Our contract had expired, and we wanted to bring in a system that would meet the latest state regulations, which our current equipment never will," Arntz said. With Sequoia out of the picture, the supervisors voted to extend the ES&S contract.


"If we put out a new request for proposals for election equipment now, it would be 2009 before we could have it," Arntz.


Newsom was unhappy with the board's decision from the beginning and let the contract extension take effect without his signature.


The contract "represents a lost opportunity to modernize San Francisco's voting system," Newsom said in an April 27 letter to the board. "It also may put the city at some significant financial and legal risk."


It also left San Francisco is the middle of the increasingly nasty clash between Bowen and ES&S.


When Bowen ordered all four voting machine companies doing business in the state to submit their equipment for a top-to-bottom review earlier this year, ES&S was the only company to miss the deadline and not have its voting systems reviewed. It also has delayed providing requested equipment to the state for review, and it reportedly sold nearly 1,000 voting machines to five California counties, including San Francisco, Marin and Solano, without notifying the state it had changed the equipment.


The tough restrictions put on the use of the company's voting system in San Francisco are borderline ridiculous given how few people are likely to run into the problems with the ink, said Steven Hill, director of the political reform program of the New America Foundation.


"We're talking about people who drop the pen they're given in the voting booth, don't pick up the pen and then grab another pen without black ink," he said. "That's a pretty small group."


Bowen "is basically throwing the book at ES&S, but it's the city that's bearing the brunt of it," Hill said.


But the restrictions are designed to help the city, not punish it, said Nicole Winger, a spokeswoman for Bowen.


"ES&S has thumbed its nose at the state and San Francisco for a long time," she said. "Secretary Bowen has put her foot down on behalf of the voters of San Francisco to hold the company to account."


An ES&S spokesman declined to comment on any disagreement with Bowen, saying only that the company will continue to work closely with the city and the state to ease any concerns about the voting machines.


While the city could decide to revisit the Sequoia contract, Arntz isn't getting his hopes up. The same supervisors who rejected the contract earlier this year are still on the board.


That decision not to replace San Francisco's voting machines "is going to cost money, cost confidence in the election process and potentially create bigger problems," Newsom said. "I just hope there is accountability here on who is to blame, so right now we can move to what to do, because there is a lot of work to do."

How to reach election officials


-- Secretary of State Debra Bowen: (916) 653-7244,


-- San Francisco Department of Elections, John Arntz, elections director: (415) 554-4375


Board of Supervisors Government Audit and Oversight Committee:


-- Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, (415) 554-6516,


-- Supervisor Michela Alioto-Pier, (415) 554-7752,


-- Supervisor Chris Daly, (415) 554-7970,

Committee meeting


The Board of Supervisors Government Audit and Oversight Committee is scheduled to meet Oct. 1 at 10 a.m. in Room 250, the Board of Supervisors chambers, at City Hall to hear from Arntz on plans for the November election.

Absentee ballots


Absentee ballots for the November election will be mailed out beginning Oct. 9. Information about how to apply for an absentee ballot in San Francisco is available at

Counting the vote: reader questions


In addition to concerns that no matter what voting system is used, elections will be stolen one way or the other, some commenters at raised specific concerns and questions, which staff writer John Wildermuth answers below. To read all the comments and find Wildermuth's story from Thursday, go to


I believe Debra Bowen came into the California secretary of state's office with an express bias against electronic voting and is willing to use any means, no matter how extreme, to decertify electronic voting.


- 'Zorf'


From the time Bowen was chair of the state Senate's elections committee, she made it clear that she had concerns about electronic voting machines. She said it again during her campaign for secretary of state and has continued to complain about the accuracy, reliability and safety of the machines.


Her argument - and tests run by her department seemed to back her up - is that electronic voting machines are vulnerable to hacking and can be gimmicked to provide wrong results. She has called on the voting machine companies to fix the problems or not be certified in the state.


- Chronicle staff writer John Wildermuth


I kind of like the Oregon voting model (mail-in only), but I would like to know if there are any controversial issues with this method.


- 'gun_smoke'


Oregon elections are mail-only and voters seem very happy about it. Turnout is up and complaints are down.


- Wildermuth


I also recall problems with mail-in ballots in Oregon. The biggest problem is that voters are not verified.


- 'SF_Mike'


I haven't heard that complaint. Right now in California, nearly half of the votes are absentee ballots, most of them turned in by mail. County election officials have to verify the signatures and make sure no one votes twice, but that's no different from how it would be in a mail-only election. I assume it's done the same way in Oregon. Now there's always the concern that one person at the address could force everyone to vote a certain way, but each ballot still has to have an individual signature.


The biggest concern about going all-mail in California is that the size of the state could really make it a problem. I don't even like to think how many election workers would be needed to verify the signature on every ballot in Los Angeles County, for example.


- Wildermuth


Chronicle staff writer George Raine contributed to this report. E-mail John Wildermuth at


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


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