San Francisco is in a race to have hack-proof voting booths before the 2020 election

How most of us feel about the US presidential voting system.
How most of us feel about the US presidential voting system.
Image: Reuters/Jim Bourg
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In the wake of one of the most divisive elections in US history, the minefields remain: Russian attempts to hack state voter-registration databases, President Trump’s false claims of at least 3 million illegally cast ballots and, most recently, a House committee’s party-line vote to kill the independent agency tasked with helping states improve their elections systems.

The effect is a widespread crisis of confidence in this nation’s electoral processes.

Meanwhile, there is no evidence that the election result, at least based on our electronic voting machines, is illegitimate. But there is a major caveat: We can’t be absolutely sure, because we haven’t done an audit. Thus, while we don’t have indisputable proof that our election was rigged, we don’t have proof that it wasn’t, either—however remote the possibility.

There are many reasons for this lack of 100-percent conclusive evidence, all of which betray an ailing voting system. One is that some districts use equipment that doesn’t leave a paper trail as a physical backup for auditing. Another is that some use equipment that is years upon years outdated, running on software vulnerable to malware infections.

There is also the fact that American citizens cast their ballots using proprietary machines, whose vote-counting technology are private intellectual property.

Most of these machines are made by just three companies—Dominion Voting Systems, Hart InterCivic, and Election System and Software. Together, these companies comprise a powerful oligopoly in the market, and keep their software secret from the public. So, if we want to validate their security and accuracy, beyond the arguably insufficient certification process, we just have to take the corporations’ word for it.

All of this amounts to “a lack of transparency and inadequate auditing,” which Chris Jerdonek, president of the San Francisco Elections Commission, says “can and does hurt voters’ confidence.”

“Without paper ballots, there’s no way to prove or disprove whether electronic votes have been hacked or tampered with,” says Jerdonek. “And the threat of hacking will only increase over time.”

If we want to restore public trust in our elections, according to reform advocates like Jerdonek, we need to have transparent, auditable, and hack-proof technology. And if we want to have that technology in time for the 2020 presidential election, we need to start now. As in, right now.

One campaign already working toward such a system is the open-source voting-technology movement, which began in the mid-2000s.

Proponents of open-source elections seek to bust the trust of proprietary equipment. Successfully doing so would mean that municipalities across the country, armed with software that is open to public inspection and license, would no longer be forced to conduct balloting using systems that are controlled by a single vendor from end to end. Instead, they could use the open-source software of their choice, and run it on the hardware of their choice, provided the technologies are certified.

This flexibility, supporters say, would spell elections that are not only more transparent and therefore more trustworthy, but also a lot cheaper for taxpayers. Jurisdictions like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Texas’s Travis County are all working to develop and implement open-source alternatives for precisely these reasons.

In the City and County of San Francisco, the Department of Elections’ voting-machine contract with Dominion cost nearly $19.7 million between 2007 and 2016, according to an Elections Commission annual report. In January, San Francisco agreed, with no viable alternative, to extend the contract until the end of 2018, bringing the total up to $22 million.

While the 2002 federal Help America Vote Act and state Voting Modernization Bond Act have subsidized some of that burden, the rest of it, after the funds ran out, has been shouldered by San Francisco’s budget, much of it made up of taxpayer dollars.

San Francisco hopes this current extension will be the last, marking the end of its 11-year “vendor lock-in,” as Jerdonek calls it.

Vendor lock-in happens because voting-machine companies control the entirety of their systems, and typically their servicing as well. This leaves jurisdictions with almost no negotiating power, says Jerdonek, and “subject to the whims of the vendors,” who oftentimes make it prohibitively expensive to ever switch to another system after buying theirs. San Francisco’s vendor, Dominion, did not return calls for comment.

Jerdonek says an open-source system, on the other hand, would be considerably more affordable. While the up-front development might require around $6 million, he estimates, it’s a cost that could be shared by multiple partnering municipalities and organizations, and would be offset over time with hardware and maintenance that’s much less expensive.

The mayor of San Francisco, Ed Lee, has already allocated $300,000 toward open-source planning, a phase that will lay the groundwork for development by January 2018, right before the 2018-19 budget process. As part of this groundwork, the city aims to issue a request for proposal by spring of this year.

If it can stick to its timeline, San Francisco will be ready with open-source voting technology for the 2020 presidential election. It may even be able to do so, though Jerdonek says it’s unlikely, for the 2019 local election; if not, the city will have to lease new equipment or extend its Dominion contract, for the fourth time. 

San Francisco’s open-source software could be the city’s own, or it could be borrowed from the handful of groups across the nation currently working to develop similar projects.

In Palo Alto, for instance, engineers at the Open Source Elections Technology Foundation (OSET) are building ElectOS, an open-source operating system to manage both balloting and back-office functions. OSET Chair Greg Miller calls fixing the country’s broken elections system “a duty to democracy” and “a matter of national security.”

In Travis County, which encompasses Texas state capital Austin, the purchasing office is soliciting a request for proposal for its open-source system, STAR-Vote, an acronym for secure, transparent, auditable and reliable. The county wants to be in position to end its contract with Hart InterCivic by the 2020 election. LA County, too, is looking into the feasibility of open-source technology through its Voting Systems Assessment Project.

Although all of these groups are exploring open-source options, Jerdonek and others acknowledge it’s not the only way to achieve a transparent, auditable, hack-proof voting system. As Sherri Greenberg, a clinical professor at the University of Austin at Texas, puts it: “Open source is kind of an open question. Typically, I am a big proponent of open source, but when it comes to voting technology, my first and foremost requirement would be that it does what we want.”

Whether open source or not, new voting-technology initiatives are up against a tight deadline, not only because of the looming 2020 election, but also because of the approaching extinction of many of the nation’s electronic machines. If jurisdictions like San Francisco haven’t found an alternative by then, they’ll have little choice but to turn to the same-old systems.

“No system is perfect,” says Greenberg, who is also a former senior advisor to Austin Mayor Steve Adler. Even so, she says, the goal is make one that’s as close to it as possible.