Recount Needed

Is a city bureaucrat putting our next vote count at risk by insisting S.F. hurry and spend up to $15 million on new equipment?

Wasn't Tuesday's voting experience satisfying? We inked-in neat, black arrows beside our favorite and next-favorite candidates, watched the ES&S Optech IIIP Eagle vote-counting machine chew through ballots, walked home wearing an "I Voted" sticker, and before we knew it, we had new members of the U.S. Congress and San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

Enjoy the satisfaction while you can, voters. A brewing problem in the city's elections department could create a vote-counting fiasco during next November's S.F. mayoral and district attorney elections evoking memories of Florida 2000.

A push by the bureaucrat who runs San Francisco elections to spend a taxpayer fortune on his favorite brand of new electronic vote-counting equipment may set the stage for a scenario in which workers must hand-count ballots, and voters must wait endlessly for election results.

San Francisco Department of Elections Director John Arntz has won plaudits for his efficiency in completing the to-do list work that makes up most of the job of running elections. This praise has been enhanced by the fact that his post had previously been filled by incompetent patronage hacks who made a mess of things in years past. But this veneer of seeming competence has masked the fact that Arntz has been attempting to bluster the city into buying $15 million or so worth of equipment from Sequoia Voting Systems, equipment that's not likely to be ready in time for next year's mayoral vote.

This crusade has already brought San Francisco within a hairsbreadth of serious vote-counting problems this Nov. 7. If Arntz keeps up his drive to make the city buy this unnecessary bureaucrat's version of the latest iPod, there's a very good chance that a year from now we won't be so lucky.

The aforementioned looming mess has roots in the fact that in America, elections are run in a manner so backward, bureaucratic, and ill conceived as to seem as if they were contrived along the lines of a Vaclav Havel play. I'm thinking of The Conspirators, where, in the name of preserving democracy, patriots form a fake plot to overthrow the government, or The Memorandum, in which office communications are infected by a new language called Ptyedepe. It's perfectly logical and utterly incomprehensible.

In the Havel-esque world of American elections, each county has its own autonomous elections bureaucracy, with its own rules, policies, and equipment. The equipment is manufactured and run by a handful of third-rate technology companies, whose sustenance comes mainly from the fact that a county-by-county certification process makes it too cumbersome for first-rate companies to enter the game. State and federal bureaucracies, meanwhile, individually approve equipment and procedures for each county, creating a time-consuming, error-magnifying thicket that allows for the theoretical likelihood that some politicians may now be in office thanks to counting errors, while ensuring that it's utterly impractical to find out which ones.

In San Francisco a 2002 law further complicates things by requiring votes to be tallied under a system called "ranked choice." In theory, this creates an instant facsimile of a runoff election by allowing voters to make second- and third-place choices. In practice, for the system to work properly and securely, San Francisco must have special computational equipment designed, and government-certified, specifically to sort and weigh first-, second-, and third-place votes.

Enter John Arntz, and his official memorandum of Oct. 31, 2006, stating that San Francisco must buy a new vote-counting system from Sequoia Voting Systems, a company whose part-Venezuelan-government-owned parent does its business out of the offshore haven of Netherlands Antilles, and whose product Arntz prefers to that of the city's current provider, Omaha, Neb.-based ES&S.

"I think chaos would ensue if we don't move forward," Arntz told me last week, referring to the new equipment purchase.

However, there's a more compelling argument to be made that chaos may ensue if the city moves forward with Arntz's money-wasting plan to rush forward with a huge purchase of new equipment, which isn't significantly better than the system now in use.

Arntz's "chaos" logic goes something like this: The same year San Francisco was making vote counts more technically cumbersome with ranked-choice voting, the federal government further complicated things with the Help America Vote Act. The law was touted as an effort to prevent future Florida-2000s, while making it easier for disabled people to vote. It was criticized, however, as a full-employment act for voting equipment vendors.

Since last year Arntz has been saying it would be impossible to carry out a successful election and comply with the law unless the city hurried up and got rid of our existing ES&S ranked-choice voting system, and bought a new, yet-to-be-devised one made by Sequoia.

By this spring, however, it began to appear as though Sequoia would not be able to come through in time for city elections in June and November.

So, claims that the old system was unusable notwithstanding, Arntz negotiated an extended deal with ES&S to buy $3.5 million worth of additional, disabled-friendly voting machines.

While the disabled-friendly system that's now in place includes fewer bells and whistles than the Sequoia system up for sale, elections experts I spoke with told me our current system is not dramatically different performance-wise in terms of security, speed, or accuracy, than the new one Arntz wants to buy.

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