A real public voting system

With machines, a current deal that thrills no one
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EDITORIAL San Francisco, it appears, will have new voting machines in place for the February 2008 presidential primary, thanks to a deal that doesn't really thrill anybody. But the city should take this opportunity to start looking at the long term — and the Board of Supervisors ought to consider abandoning its reliance on the private sector and bringing voting technology back to the public itself.

The November municipal election was a mess: Election Systems and Software, the vendor with the contract to provide local voting equipment, couldn't meet the requirements of the secretary of state, so the city's polling equipment was invalid and votes had to be counted by hand. Now City Attorney Dennis Herrera has initiated legal action against the company, and the city is prepared to hire a new vendor. Sequoia Systems of Oakland is poised to get a four-year contract to provide voting equipment that will meet state standards, handle the local ranked-choice-voting system, and, presumably, make election results available within a few hours after the polls close.

There are problems with the deal: Sequoia, like all private election-machine makers, refuses to release its source code. So the public (and city officials) has no way of knowing if the software is accurate, susceptible to hacking, or easily corrupted. Sequoia has agreed to let the city pick a neutral third party that will be given access to the code for the purpose of verifying its quality, but ideally, the source code for something as critical to democracy as a voting machine ought to be made public as a matter of course. And as long as private companies, which consider their code a trade secret, control the market for voting machines, that's never going to happen.

Steven Hill, director of the Political Reform Program at the New America Foundation, has an excellent idea: the state of California or some group of cities ought to create a public, open-source election system. If San Francisco did that, the city could even franchise it — act as a vendor and make a little money licensing the program to other municipalities.

Creating a voting-machine system isn't cheap or easy; in fact, most experts say it would take several years. But San Francisco has several years now — the Sequoia contract will carry through 2012. That ought to be enough time to either create our own system or form a consortium with, say, Los Angeles, Sacramento, and a few others to finance and build a true public voting system that can be vetted by outside experts, approved by the secretary of state, modified for new projects like RCV, and used for years at little or no additional cost. An open-source system would give the public confidence in the results. And it would put control of voting back where it belongs — in the public sector.

The supervisors should create a task force to begin looking into this, with the idea of having an operational alternative available when the Sequoia contract runs out.