Saturday, July 28, 2007

San Francisco Considers Hand-Counting Paper Ballots (Guest Blog By Jane Allen)

Guest blogged by Jane Allen in San Francisco

According to a recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle, the city is headed for another disaster.

"Earthquake predictions?" you ask. No. This is about the November 2007 election and the city's lack of a certified voting system.

The July 25, 2007 story states that election officials in San Francisco, along with those in California Secretary of State Debra Bowen's office, "are scrambling to find a way to keep the city from having to count more than 200,000 ballots by hand" and calls it "a nightmare process that could drag on for weeks." John Arntz, San Francisco's Director of Elections, was quoted as saying, "There's a very realistic possibility we'll be doing a hand count."

Just one of several disconnects around San Francisco's vote-counting saga is this: at the July 18 Elections Commission meeting, Mr. Arntz seemed rather unconcerned about this issue, saying, "A hand count is not the plan," and "it is most likely" that San Francisco will use the ES&S Optech Eagle (the present, uncertified system) for the November election.

How can it be that Mr. Arntz was, at a meeting last week, unaware of the "nightmare" described by John Wildermuth of the Chronicle? Is the Chronicle indulging in hyperbole? Did Mr. Arntz get a very sudden wake-up call? Or is Mr. Arntz speaking out now to push the Sequoia Voting Systems contract approval, despite a February 2007 thumbs down from the Board of Supervisors?

Looking at the larger picture, maybe that "nightmare" is already here?

The four-year $12.6 million contract with Sequoia for uncertified equipment (negotiated by Arntz) was not approved because, the supes said, Sequoia must publicly disclose the source code. Sequoia declined. Supposedly, negotiations over that are continuing, so it's still on the table ... or maybe at least on the floor next to the table? At the July 18 meeting, Mr. Arntz again expressed his hope that the contract would be approved. With the election only three months away, it sounded like he still can't let go of the fantasy of Sequoia riding to the rescue. (While he was negotiating with Sequoia, public comment at Elections Commission meetings repeatedly urged him to specify open source code. He ignored those pleas, and then -- oops -- the Board of Supervisors demanded the same.)

Mr. Arntz's June 28, 2007 memo to the mayor and supervisors ("Brief Overview of Manually Counting and Tallying Votes for November 6, 2007 Election") gave no cost estimate for a hand count. But in a May 18, 2007 San Francisco Examiner story, he placed that number at "roughly $1 million," which may be quite a bargain compared to the Sequoia deal.

As for the hand-count "nightmare," New Hampshire – yes, the entire state – routinely hand-counts 20% of all ballots on election night, according to Democracy for New Hampshire. In November 2004, New Hampshire recorded 676,227 votes in the presidential race, meaning about 135,000 were tallied by hand. Won't San Franciscans be willing/able to step up and count November’s expected 200,000 ballots?

Adding another bit of mess to this scenario, Brent Turner of the Election Defense Alliance (EDA) mentioned at June and July Elections Commission meetings that Sequoia plans to sue San Francisco over the unapproved contract. Brent said Steve Bennett of Sequoia had made that threat.

So here's what we've got:

- uncertified, old ES&S equipment that may or may not be used to run the November election;

- an ES&S breakdown rate (requiring tech support) of about 25% in June 2006 and 35% in November 2006 -- so those machines are increasingly looking like more trouble than they're worth;

- the Secretary of State trying to work out some sort of accommodation on the ES&S certification issue;

- on July 18 Mr. Arntz sounding pretty optimistic about the SoS giving some kind of OK to ES&S, thus avoiding a hand count;

- a week later, a gloom and doom article from the Chronicle with Mr. Arntz saying a hand count is a "realistic possibility";

- ES&S officials, according to Mr. Arntz, not responding to his phone calls (although others -- Commissioner Townsend and EDA's Brent Turner -- report reaching Lou Dedier, a VP of ES&S, with no problem);

- ES&S consistently ignoring requests to appear at Elections Commission meetings (will they show up on election day? – it's anybody's guess);

- Sequoia possibly going to sue the city/county of SF if their contract isn't approved;

- no sign of Mr. Arntz making comprehensive contingency plans for putting together a hand-counted election; and

- the Elections Commission, at the July 18 meeting, voting to recommend renewal of Mr. Arntz's employment contract.
A hand count could turn out to be the least of our worries.

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