November 24, 2007

IRV Fiasco in Frisco

Posted in Elections, IRV, paper ballots, politics, San Francisco IRV election, voting machines tagged , , , , at 8:53 am by bluebanshee

This month’s IRV election in San Francisco had a  lo…onnngg count with the final results not being announced within 24 hours of the close of polls as is customary in U.S. elections but delayed for weeks.

There is lots of fingerpointing about the delayed election results, with some blaming CA SOS Bowen and others saying that it is the fault of the AutoMark ballot marking device that is used by disabled voters. Both of these analyses contain just enough of a shred of truth that they are wholeheartedly embraced by segments of the public. But neither explanation considers the complete situation while at the same time overlooking salient facts. The situation is much more complex.

The story begins with Debra Bowen’s election as California Secretary of State in November 06 and her determination to study the election system in her state and document its strengths and weaknesses. To that end, SOS Bowen decided to conduct a Top to Bottom (T2B) Review of the equipment and software used in her state. She contracted with University of California at Berkeley to do the study. There were four key areas studied: Software Code review, Documentation review Red Team penetration study and Accessibility review. Further information about the results of the T2B Review can be found at:

The voting machine vendors were invited to participate with the understanding that their ability to continue to sell equipment in California was at stake. Ultimately the only vendor that declined to participate in the T2B review process was ES&S, based in Omaha, NE. The other vendors participated and either received conditional certification to continue doing business in the state (Sequoia and Diebold) or decided to withdraw from the process after it was underway (Hart InterCivic). By its decision not to take part in the T2B Review ES&S lost out in two key counties — Los Angeles and San Francisco.

But, wait — ES&S got a conditional reprieve for San Francisco, after officials in that county pleaded that only ES&S could supply the software that would be needed to count votes in their local Instant Runoff Voting (IRV). The problem was that the software had not been examined by a federal testing lab and therefore had never been federally certified. California requires federal certification of voting systems including software. Also alarming was the fact that the software had not been examined as part of the Top to Bottom Review process. This meant that the software to be used in this election was an unknown untested quantity, with only the vendor’s assurances to be relied on that it would perform as promised.

The City of San Francisco had been using this uncertified software on a conditional basis since 2004, all the while hoping that a “white knight” voting machine would come galloping to their rescue by providing software that was not only capable of tallying their municipal IRV races but would also be able to be examined and certified by a federal testing lab.

So SOS Bowen reluctantly agreed to let the software be used for the Nov. 07 IRV election in San Francisco — but under stringent conditions and safeguards, many of which were directed at the other problem of concern in this election — the optical scan equipment that would be used. The particular type of scanner that was to be used was one that used an older technology — infrared beams — to scan the ballots. This OpTech Eagle scanner has known difficulty recognizing some types and brands of ink used to mark ballots. Newer scanners use laser beams that pick up more types of ink.

Because of this difficulty with certain types of ink, Bowen ordered that ballots that did not scan cleanly were to be “remade” or duplicated. She also ordered that certain other problem ballots be “remade”. In all up to 94% of ballots in San Francisco’s municipal election have to be “remade” by election workers. According to here is how the “remaking” is done:

When a ballot needs to be remade, election officials pull it aside and one election official fills in a new ballot while another official watches. Those two election officials then give the old ballot and the remade ballot to a different pair of election officials who ensure that the new ballot reflects the voter’s intentions and code the new ballot so it can be traced back to the original.

This tedious process of “remaking” ballots is what has slowed the count in San Francisco.

Why did so many ballots need to be “remade”?

John Arntz, the city’s election director, said at a press conference this week that officials have had to remake 94 percent of absentee ballots cast before they can be counted, because of casting errors, confusion about ranked-choice voting, incorrect pencil or ink and other problems. An informal survey of poll workers indicated that ballots cast on election day at precincts could be similarly flawed.

Then there were the questions about the AutoMark. Evidence surfaced that ES&S had knowingly sold uncertified versions of the AutoMark in at least 5 California counties including San Francisco without notifying SOS Bowen as required by law. The AutoMark is an accessibility device used by the relatively small sliver of voters who are disabled. Because this uncertified version was to be used in this month’s election SOS Bowen decided that it could continue to be used by disabled voters but all the ballots produced on it would have to be hand-counted. Another reason for a very long, very slow count . [ Read more at

As a result of this mess, the City of San Francisco is suing ES&S for upwards of $300,000 to recoup the additional labor costs of “remaking” (and hand-counting) so many ballots. [More info about this suit at

In addition, SOS Bowen is suing ES&S for selling uncertified AutoMark equipment in 5 California counties (including San Francisco) contrary to California law. The price tag for Bowen’s suit: $15 million.

“ES&S ignored the law over and over again and it got caught,” Bowen said in a statement released to the San Francisco Chronicle. The suit seeks $9.7 million in penalties and asks the court to order ES&S to reimburse the localities for nearly $5 million for the machines.

So who is really to blame for the mess in San Francisco? Is it Debra Bowen, who is conscientiously trying to do her job? Is it only the AutoMark, which serves only a fraction of voters and could not be held responsible for the deluge of ballots needing special handling like hand counting or “remaking?” Or is it ES&S, the company that pushed optical scan equipment with known problems reading certain inks, AND sold an uncertified version of AutoMark AND added uncertified software to this volatile mix?

Ding, ding, ding ….. ES&S has hit the trifecta!

Furthermore, I predict SOS Bowen will prevail in court especially since she has Deputy SOS Lowell Finley to advise her. Finley, formerly with the grassroots organization VoterAction, is no slouch at taking on the voting machine companies. My money is on San Francisco winning their suit, too.


1 Comment »

  1. betsyj said,

    Very informative! Thanks for posting this. As a Californian, I’ll be interested in seeing how this develops.

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