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San Francisco Could Become First Local Government to Use Open-Source Voting System

San Francisco has taken a tentative step toward deciding on whether it will become the first local government in the country to run its voting machines on open-source software.

The notion of shifting away from using proprietary technology sold by private companies to computer code made freely available for anyone to use and modify has been talked about for years. But it’s been getting more attention since the city allocated $300,000 to study the issue.

Last week, Elections Director John Arntz opened discussions with Slalom, a consulting group selected by the city to prepare a detailed report on what San Francisco would face if it decides go to an open-source voting system. The report is expected to be finished by January at a cost of around $175,000.

Proponents of open-source voting systems say local governments using them would be able to hold elections with an unprecedented level of control, transparency and security. It’s a concept that’s gaining wider attention nationwide given the specter of vote tampering that arose during last year’s presidential election.

California Secretary of State Alex Padilla has said he would support an open-source voting system, assuming it could pass the state’s certification protocols. In April, Padilla endorsed the Voting Modernization Bond Act of 2018, which seeks $450 million to upgrade the state’s antiquated voting machines. Some of that money could be spent by county elections officials to research and develop open-source voting systems.

Supporters say open-source systems would be reliable because they can be constantly assessed by a swarm of programmers who can spot bugs and recommend improvements before election day.

“To put it simply, you want to have as many eyes on the code as possible,” said Brent Turner, secretary of the California Association of Voting Officials, a group dedicated to implementing open-source voting systems.

Open-source software could allow the city to more fully understand and adjust how votes are tallied. Currently, vendors of electronic voting equipment provide few details about how their machines operate, claiming those details are proprietary. Governments are also beholden to private vendors if they want to make a change to the software running the machines.

“You’re stuck with whatever they provide,” said Chris Jerdonek, president of the San Francisco Elections Commission and the chairman of the commission’s Open Source Voting System Technical Advisory Committee. “Open-source would give the city an opportunity to say, ‘We want to make a tweak,’ and then they’d be free to do that.”

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