Prepare to Vote on Android Tablets

New voting machines could greet San Francisco voters as early as November 2019.

Nick Coudsy with Dominion Voting Systems demonstrates new machines the city may use in future elections at City Hall on Thursday, July 26, 2018. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

A potential new voting system may not guarantee San Franciscans night-of election results, but agonizing, eight-day waits for a new mayor are likely behind us.

That scenario unfolded in June, mostly thanks to the sheer amount of mail-in ballots that streamed in days after the polls had closed. But this past week, voters and the San Francisco Department of Elections had the chance to engineer a smoother, less tedious process on several fronts.

For future elections, Dominion Voting Systems has an alternative that will allow voters to select their choices on a huge Android tablet complete with ADA-friendly accessibility options, a language bar, a review page, and companion printer to track their choices on paper. To extend the ranked-choice voting confusion, voters can rank up to 10 candidates on the screen.

“This system is much more versatile than the existing system,” says Larry Korb, a sales engineer for Dominion.

Electronic voting may reflexively trigger fear of placing trust in digital systems — especially as Russian influence arguably goes unchecked. But voting wouldn’t be 100 percent electronic; whether it’s completed with the touch of a fingerprint or mailed-in with pen marks, every ballot would have a paper copy and digital scan for the Department of Elections to keep.

If a ballot needs a human review — for instance, to verify which candidate was intended for outside-the-bubble pen marks — it can be selected onscreen, and that history will be tied to the ballot. Every single ballot could also be posted online for the public to review, offering greater transparency.

Like the basement in City Hall, each precinct will come with a machine to scan the paper votes, which takes about 10 seconds per ballot. The machine stores the results on a memory card, which will be physically taken to the Department of Elections so as to leave the internet out of the equation.

Another machine is primarily intended for mail-in ballots and can scan 70 or 80 a minute — saving time and avoiding a labor shortage during election season (something that a humming economy can exacerbate, Arntz says).

On Monday, Dominion defended its reputation for security after a FiveThirtyEight analysis of private voter machine security found that a client portal webpage lacked basic encryption that would keep sensitive login credentials safe. Kay Stimson, Dominion’s vice president of government affairs, tells SF Weekly the webpage is completely separate from internal company documents and, of course, the internet-less machines themselves, but that it has been taken down while the company boosts encryption security.

A contract is under negotiation, but Arntz estimates a lease of the system would cost about $2 million per year. San Francisco would likely end up paying half of that, with funds from a statewide effort to upgrade voting systems funding the other half.

Dominion was the only candidate that met the high level of standards and can account for ranked-choice voting, so if San Francisco does indeed upgrade, this is pretty much the system we’re getting. Sacramento and Contra Costa counties just adopted it, too.

City voters wouldn’t use the new Dominion service until November 2019 at the earliest. Since the department is moving its storage warehouses from Pier 48 to Pier 31 at the end of the year, Arntz says they prefer to wrap up any change in machines by then.

“We don’t want to bring our old system with us,” Artnz says.

After the whirlwind, contested election in June, San Franciscans can hardly blame him.

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