San Francisco RFI Lays Out Voting Technology Needs in a Changing Environment

San Francisco, CA, USA


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One of the most challenging aspects of election administration – at least recently – is the need to use fixed but limited assets like time and money to plan for rapidly-changing needs. The latest story that captures this struggle comes from the city of San Francisco, which is looking for new voting equipment. The San Francisco Chronicle has more:

San Francisco is in the market for new voting machines, but the fast-changing landscape of California elections means the city might need a crystal ball to go alongside its purchase orders.

With more and more voters casting ballots by mail, many of the city’s 597 precincts are lonely places on election day. Recognizing the new reality, state election officials already have authorized a test of mail-only elections in San Mateo and Yolo counties. California Secretary of State Alex Padilla also is sponsoring a bill, SB450, that would allow counties to send ballots to every voter and slash the required number of polling places to as few as 15 in a city the size of San Francisco.

“We’re not trying to ram this down anyone’s throat,” said Sam Mahood, a spokesman for the secretary of state’s office. But Padilla “has been pretty clear in articulating his vision of voting in the future.”

But until those changes take place, San Francisco is forced to plan on putting new and increasingly expensive voting machines in every one of those current polling places, possibly spending millions of dollars on a system that could quickly become obsolete.

“We don’t want to end up with a bunch of equipment that we don’t need anymore,” said John Arntz, the city’s elections chief.

To address those needs, the city has issued a request for information (RFI) for a new voting system:

Earlier this month, Arntz took the first step toward replacing the current voting machine system by the end of next year. The city’s request for information invites companies to bid on the upcoming contract and lists the dozens of preferences the city has for any new system.

Most of those requirements are standard stuff, such as allowing all voters “to cast ballots in an independent and confidential manner” and meeting the security standards set by the state.

But there are other more esoteric, only-in-San Francisco needs, such as the ability to handle the paper ballots the city favors and an upgrade to the current ranked-choice voting system that will allow people to rank every candidate for office, instead of only their top three choices.

In the case of a wide-open, everybody-in-the-pool election, such as the 2010 District 10 race for supervisor, which drew 21 candidates, votes will be able to rank everyone on the ballot from 1 to 21. The change is designed to answer critics who argue that voters are disenfranchised when all three of their current choices are eliminated before the end of the ranked-choice tallies.

A key requirement seeks systems committed to open source software:

The city also is asking that the new voting system operate using open-source software, which would allow the public to see and review the actual operating code that runs the voting machine, counts the ballots and releases the results.

Currently, voting systems across the country rely on the proprietary software of the private companies that build them, which critics argue gives those companies the opportunity to game the system and influence or chance the final vote count.

“Voting systems are at the heart of our political system and need the public’s complete confidence,” said Supervisor Scott Wiener, who last year backed a measure calling for a feasibility study on an open-source elections system for the city. Using open-source software “is definitely a new and innovative approach, but San Francisco is all about innovation and leading the United States.”

Given the current technology landscape, however, open source is not likely to arrive in the City by the Bay anytime soon:

But while election reform groups have called for the move to open-source software for years, every state, city and county in the nation now uses closed, proprietary software for their elections. Only Los Angeles and Travis County, Texas, are developing their own, open-source voting systems, and the Los Angeles system, which has been under development since 2009, isn’t scheduled for use until 2020.

“I would not imagine this is something that would happen quickly,” said Jason Fried, executive officer of the San Francisco Local Agency Formation Commission, which did the draft open-source study for the supervisors. “It’s likely two or three years out before something could happen.”

Most importantly, however, the city will be seeking a new system that doesn’t require city policymakers to open their wallets quite as much:

It also has to be cheaper. The city spent about $13 million to replace the voting system last time out, but state and federal money paid for nearly $9 million of the cost. This time, it will be all San Francisco’s cash.

“There’s no money set aside for the purchase, so we’re looking for a lower hit,” Arntz said. And with the changes coming in California elections, “we don’t want to purchase something and have to keep it for 10 years.”

The upcoming replacement talks are likely to look at the possibility of leasing new voting equipment or renting to buy, with the possibility of upgrading or changing the system when there’s a better idea of what the future holds for voting in the state, he added.

While San Francisco’s size, scope and individual requirements make it it somewhat unique nationally, the challenge of identifying a voting system that can do what the city needs, in the way the city wants, at a price point the city can afford is a challenge common to many jurisdictions nationwide whose federal financial assistance ran out years ago. The responses to the RFI and the decision the City makes about its new voting machines will therefore be a useful piece of information to election administrators everywhere.

Stay tuned.

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