Blowing It

How San Francisco elections officials dropped the ball on instant runoff voting

But representatives of Election Systems & Software, the city's voting machine vendor, concluded that it made more sense to buy new touch-screen voting machines than to retrofit all the Eagles. With a vested interest in seeing the transition to IRV go smoothly, ES&S offered to cut the city a deal if it converted to touch screens. Although the price tag could exceed $10 million, state funds had been set aside to help with the purchase, and city officials had expressed their intention to adopt the more technologically advanced touch-screen system, now in use by half a dozen California counties.

ES&S Regional Sales Vice President Joe Taggard declined to talk about the matter for the record. But sources familiar with the negotiations say the company argued that the cost of upgrading the Eagles would be money badly spent if the city later replaced them with touch screens. Yet Arntz stuck with the Eagles, concluding that on top of gearing up for IRV, a switch to touch screens would be too much, too soon, for his chronically understaffed department to absorb, these sources say.

Headquartered in the City Hall basement, the Elections Department has long been a stepchild of the municipal bureaucracy. It has only about a dozen full-time permanent employees. About a dozen others, while assigned full time to the department, actually are on long-term loan from other city departments. Thus, there is little job security and little continuity from one election cycle to the next. "It's a thankless situation," says an ex-staffer who asked not to be identified. "You never know from one year to the next, or one month to the next, whether they're going to yank you and put you someplace else, or whether you're going to be out of a job." As elections draw close, the department depends on roughly 200 seasonal employees and, at election time, an even larger number of volunteers.

By last October, with ES&S still trying to sell city officials on touch screens, Arntz, again with the commission's backing, gave the vendor an ultimatum: Either come up with a way of upgrading the Eagles, or the city would put the project out to bid. The vendor reluctantly agreed. But it was the beginning of a fiasco.

Sources familiar with the matter say the vendor suggested that it could do the upgrade for $100,000 if, instead of modifying each of the hundreds of precinct machines, it installed new software for two large-capacity vote-counting computers at City Hall. The plan would have involved physically transferring uncounted ballots from throughout San Francisco to City Hall after the polls closed, something that Arntz -- mindful of past problems -- preferred not to do.

Both sides agreed to sign an upgrade contract by Jan. 1. But with Arntz and the department up to their elbows in conducting an election in the fall, little got done. It wasn't until January that contract talks even began. By then, ES&S had announced it would cost $1.6 million to upgrade all the precinct machines. Yet inexplicably, the negotiations languished.

Michael Mendelson, who was then commission president, spent February through April fending off pleas from IRV supporters to finish dealing with the vendor so the city would have something to submit to the state to be certified. Steven Hill says that for two months he was told by one or another commissioner that the contract "would be ready any day now. They kept saying, 'Next week, next week.' But we've never gotten a straight answer as to what the holdup was."

The department came to terms with ES&S only days before the pivotal July hearing at which the secretary of state's office rejected the city's slapped-together plan to partially count ballots by hand in the event the company couldn't complete the upgrade in time. Even so, the city didn't have a signed contract until August -- well past when the work was to have been finished. ES&S had continued to work on the upgrade without a contract, and its representatives insisted there would be no impediment to putting IRV in place in November using the Optech Eagles.

Still, during the months that contract negotiations slowed to a crawl, work had not progressed sufficiently to meet the secretary of state's guidelines for advance testing. Everybody -- the commission, Arntz, ES&S, and Shelley -- blamed everybody else. But for angry IRV supporters, dozens of whom had vented before the Elections Commission and at Shelley's hearing, it felt like the end of a game in which the team with the upper hand had run out the clock.


From his résumé, it is hard to imagine a more improbable big-city elections chief than John Arntz.

Not only did the Detroit native have no previous experience running elections, he had never even worked in government. He started at the Elections Department in October 1999 as a desk clerk answering phones and greeting the public. Barely 2 1/2 years later, upon Haygood's dismissal, he was running the place.

It wasn't his first unlikely career turn. In 1996, after graduating from the University of South Dakota's law school, Arntz eschewed the bar exam and returned to Alaska (where he had earned a degree in English literature at the University of Alaska) to be a carpenter. "I realized while in law school that becoming a practicing attorney is something I didn't want to do," he says.

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