Software fight delays use of high-tech ballots 

San Franciscans may vote using costlier and older machines this November as voter rights advocates staunchly oppose a proposed contract between The City and an electronic voting machine company until it agrees to reveal its software secrets.

Electronic voting machines throughout the nation have come under fire by voter rights advocates who say keeping private how the software counts the votes could lead to voter fraud and provides no assurance that every vote is, in fact, counted.

The City’s election director, John Arntz, is trying to convince the Board of Supervisors to approve a $12.6 million contract with Sequoia Voting Systems Inc. in time to put brand-new machines in place for the November election.

Arntz said the existing voting machines are old and in the last election at least 25 percent of the machines required in-field service on Election Day.

The Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance Committee refused for the second time on Wednesday to send the contract out of committee for full board approval. Supervisor Chris Daly, who chairs the committee, has indicated he will not allow the contract out of committee until Sequoia agrees to publicly release its software and how it counts the votes. San Francisco would become one of the first cities to require an electronic voting machine company to publicly disclose its software.

"Nobody and no machine should be counting votes in secret. And that’s what at issue here today," senior software consultant Jim Soper said.

Arntz said if The City does not approve the Sequoia contract it will have to extend the existing contract and pay $4 million, for maintenance and operation of the old system, for the four elections in 2007 and 2008.

The Sequoia contract would result in The City paying $6.8 million over four years with half of the contract cost coming from state and federal grants. The City would not be able to use any of the grant money for the old system.

Steven Bennet, a Sequoia representative, said Sequoia won’t agree to public disclosure since it would "jeopardize the security to all of our customers in California and across the country." Electronic voting machine companies also want to keep their software secret for proprietary reasons.

Under the contract, The City would receive 610 optical scan voting machines (machines that read a paper ballot) and 610 touch-screen voter machines, intended for use only by the disabled.

Very few people will use the touch-screen machines, which would keep a paper record of each vote within the machine itself, according to Arntz. He said the system will remain paper-based and the voters won’t notice any difference.

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