March 7, 2006 - City awaits state OK of new voting machines
March 7, 2006 "SAN FRANCISCO;
City awaits state OK of new voting machines;
Critics of new deal warn of need for contingency plan"
Copyright 2006 The Chronicle Publishing Co.
All Rights Reserved
THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE (California)
March 7, 2006 Tuesday
SECTION: BAY AREA; Pg. B3
LENGTH: 849 words
HEADLINE: SAN FRANCISCO;
City awaits state OK of new voting machines;
Critics of new deal warn of need for contingency plan
BYLINE: Charlie Goodyear, Chronicle Staff Writer
Less than three months before the June primary, a voting machine company selected by San Francisco to process ballots has yet to be certified by state election officials and is operating without a formal contract with the city, raising concerns among election watchdogs.
Critics of the city's dealings with Sequoia Voting Systems -- which is awaiting state certification of its ballot-scanning machines to run elections in San Francisco and 19 other jurisdictions in California -- say the city is risking holding an election without any modern technology because it has no backup plan in the event the company ultimately fails to win approval from the California secretary of state.
Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi was concerned enough to introduce a resolution -- to be considered today by the Board of Supervisors -- which calls on the city's Department of Elections to come up with a worse-case-scenario plan within two weeks. The resolution also calls for Sequoia to demonstrate its machines.
"We cannot afford this roll of the dice," Mirkarimi said Monday. "We should never not have a Plan B for something as critical as a clean, honest election process."
Election snafus, from hanging chads in Florida in 2000 to floating ballot-box tops in San Francisco that same year, have eroded voter trust in vote counts and focused scrutiny on a handful of private companies that market optical scanners, touch screens and other machines to record and tally votes.
For the past five years, San Francisco had relied on Election Systems & Software Inc. of Nebraska to tabulate balloting. But a contract with that company expired last year. To comply with new federal election standards, the city put out a bid last year for companies to install about 630 voting machines throughout the city that can be operated by people with physical disabilities.
Sequoia, of Oakland, won the bidding for a deal with San Francisco's Department of Elections that could be worth as much as $15 million, edging out Election Systems & Software by just one point on a city rating scale, which took into account company financial stability, expertise and other factors.
But Sequoia won't just be installing new touch screens. It has also been given the job of replacing with newer equipment and software hundreds of obsolete city-owned optical scanners that have been used to read paper ballots. All of the changes must be approved by state elections officials before a single vote can be cast.
"Our products have been tested and attested to the federal standards," Sequoia spokeswoman Michelle Shafer said Monday. "We've been recommended for federal qualification. We've been recommended for state certification. We have equipment operating in 21 states. We have every confidence that we can meet our customers' requirements or else we wouldn't even be doing this. Failure is not an option."
But it is a real possibility, said Steven Hill, director of political reform for the New America Foundation, a nonprofit, public-policy think tank based in Washington, D.C. Hill questions the city's dealings with Sequoia and the company's ability to deliver.
"The time line is extremely short," Hill said. "Here in the first week of March, it's like being in the first week in August for the November election. You have to get your ballots printed. There's just a lot of details going into the election, with quite a long to-do list. This is messing with the to-do list."
Hill said it would be simple enough to keep the system now in place from Election Systems & Software, which is planning to remove its software from city voting machines starting next month. He said that would provide the city some insurance in case Sequoia doesn't receive the necessary state approvals.
Hill said there also is reason for concern over whether Sequoia's equipment will be ready in San Francisco for the November election. Unlike June, the fall election will use ranked-choice voting to decide races for supervisor. Under the system, voters select candidates by order of preference without the need for a runoff. Ranked-choice voting was first implemented in San Francisco in 2004, but only after a two-year review and certification process for the equipment provided previously by Election Systems & Software. Hill questions whether Sequoia can get its system approved in time to count ballots under ranked-choice voting.
"It took a heck of a lot of time the last time," Hill said.
San Francisco Elections Director John Arnst said the city needs to upgrade its voting machines, and a new contract with Election Systems & Software would have cost more. As for contingency plans suggested for the June election such as a hand count of votes or other labor-intensive, expensive methods, Arnst said most options are unrealistic.
"A lot them aren't really effective," he said. "They would just create more work for the department."
Arnst added: "The most viable backup plan, if there is one, is to end the contract discussions with Sequoia and enter new contract discussions with Election Systems & Software, which would most likely be a one-year contract extension."