November 15, 2007 - Debate on new voting machines
Paper: San Francisco Chronicle (CA)
Title: Debate on new voting machines
Date: November 15, 2007
San Francisco supervisors are moving forward with a contract to purchase new voting machines, a move that would forestall a February repeat of the slow tally of the Nov. 6 election but that isn't likely to satisfy advocates for unfettered public review of the computer software used to count votes.
The new $12.6 million contract with Sequoia Voting Systems would free San Francisco of the restrictions imposed on its use of its voting machines by state elections officials.
Those restrictions - ordered by California Secretary of State Debra Bowen after the city's current supplier of machines failed to obtain state certification - required local election officials to visually inspect 10 percent of ballots as a check on the electronic tally and to re-mark ballots in cases where voters used light-colored ink.
But the contract with Sequoia Voting Systems for new equipment - a version of which was rejected earlier this year over concerns about the software not being made available for public scrutiny - is still being viewed with skepticism by elections advocates who want all details of how votes are counted open to public review.
"This is a period in voting technology that is a new frontier, and frankly I don't really like the choices that we have to pick from," said Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin. "Nonetheless, we know what the (current election machine) experience has been."
The board committee chaired by Peskin took testimony Wednesday during a public hearing on the proposed new contract and scheduled a vote for next month that could send the deal to the full Board of Supervisors for final approval by January.
On Feb. 5, voters go to the polls to have their say in the presidential primary and on state ballot measures on legislative term limits and community college funding.
The new contract would run for at least four years and replace an agreement with Election Systems and Software.
Under the proposed contract, Sequoia has agreed to allow a third party to inspect the machines' software code. If another vendor creates a machine with software open for complete public inspection, the company agreed to follow suit in a year.
Additionally, Sequoia has agreed to pay monetary penalties if the voting equipment fails to work in an election, or if Bowen doesn't certify the equipment to handle the city's ranked choice voting system - in which voters are allowed to list their top three candidates running for local office. The city's next ranked-choice election is November 2008, when several seats on the Board of Supervisors will be decided.
"This is probably the best contract in the country, and I'm not kidding," John Arntz, the city's election's director, testified at the hearing Wednesday. "There are so many protections in it."
But some elections advocates and supervisors aren't convinced.
"The thing is, the other option is so unattractive that this might smell better, but I don't think it's really going to do what we're asking," said Supervisor Tom Ammiano. "Things have to be public, not just semi-public."
Voting machine activists echoed Ammiano's concerns, with some advocating for hand counting of every election while others encouraged city leaders to fund an initiative to create a new type of machine.
"If San Francisco doesn't stand up to the voting machine companies, then who will?" said Carol Bella of the San Francisco Voting Integrity Project.
Still, early backers of the Sequoia contract - like Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, who advocated for its passage in February and later predicted some of the chaos seen in the vote counting this election - said it's critical that the contract passes.
Some 14,600 ballots have still yet to be counted from last week's election.
"The city failed the Department of Elections, and now we're fixing that problem," Elsbernd said.
Author: Wyatt Buchanan
Copyright (c) San Francisco Chronicle 2007