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.
So on Oct. 25, just two weeks before the election, Arntz obtained official "one-time certification" from the California secretary of state to use the ES&S system Nov. 7.
"They don't want to certify this system again," Arntz told me. "They asked to have the system certified only one time."
However, a spokeswoman for Secretary of State Bruce McPherson told me, "as with all voting systems, any vendor can reapply" to have their equipment certified for a subsequent election.
As for the claim that time was running out on federal funds, that's simply false: The money will be still available if the city holds off on buying a new system until after Dec. 31.
Then there's the pesky problem of vaporware, the universal term for software or hardware that is announced by a developer long before its release, and then fails to emerge.
Sequoia, as it happens, does not yet have a vote-counting machine proven to work with San Francisco's unique system of ranked-choice voting.
Alameda County has a new "instant-runoff" law, and has a contract with Sequoia to provide systems to run a ranked-choice election but not until 2008, the year after San Francisco hopes to have such a system in place. There's nothing to guarantee that the company will produce such a system, then get it tested and officially certified by the state, in time for next year's mayoral vote.
Instead of the existence of an actual product, or even formal guarantees, Arntz is depending on Sequoia's "reputation, and what they've proven. They've proven that when they get a contract they execute on it," the elections director said in an interview.
The fact is, however, that Sequoia has received its share of complaints about meeting performance standards in places such as Illinois and New Mexico.
"It's all what we're keeping an eye on, and whether it's not going to happen," Matthews said. "If it becomes an uncomfortable time crunch in 2007, and we see that, hey, [Sequoia's product] is vaporware, we'll do something else. We're never going to miss an election in San Francisco."
I've tried to comprehend why Arntz is anxious to spend $15 million of taxpayer money on what Sequoia says is the latest and greatest in vote-counting equipment. For one thing, he's had a lousy experience with the ES&S sales staff in one demonstration not long ago, ES&S employees failed to make a machine work properly because they used the wrong type of pen.
But pens and irritating salespeople notwithstanding, it's important to note that ES&S now has a track record running successful San Francisco elections for several years.
Then there's the new-technology wow factor.
"We've all got equipment, you know. I've got a brick cellphone I bought for $1,500 in 1989," notes San Francisco elections commissioner Gerard Gleason, who also questions the wisdom of rushing ahead with the Sequoia purchase. "It has a really nice leather case. Now it's a doorstop. Motorola came out with their handheld a year later."
But even taking into account a bureaucrat's infatuation with new toys, the idea of putting next year's election in jeopardy seems irresponsible.
"I understand the department's desire to go to better voting equipment, but the decision should not be made hastily, and it should not be done in such a way that risks the November 2007 election," said Steven Hill, senior analyst for the Center for Voting and Democracy, who is advising Alameda County on its use of Sequoia equipment for its 2008 ranked-choice elections. "Here we are in early November, and it seems to me that the time may be too short, because Sequoia's equipment has not yet been developed, tested, or certified."
Perhaps there's another phenomenon at work behind Arntz's insistence that the city toss out perfectly good voting equipment, spend a fortune on an untested new system, and endanger next year's mayoral vote count.
It's called Havel's Ptyedepe Factor. It says that if a government function such as elections management is already backward, rigid, and ill conceived, you can count on a bureaucrat to make things worse.