San Francisco Open Source Voting System Project

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What is the project? The project is for the City and County of San Francisco to develop and certify an open source paper-ballot voting system, as described in detail by a resolution passed unanimously by the San Francisco Elections Commission in November 2015.[1]

What is an open source voting system? An open source voting system is a voting system consisting of open source software running on commercial off-the-shelf (COTS, aka “commodity”) hardware. Open source software is software that is free for anyone to inspect, use, and improve.[2] The software is public and non-proprietary. The Firefox web browser and the Linux and Android operating systems are three widely used examples of open source software. Open source software is used heavily by successful technology companies large and small.

What are some advantages of open source? Open source is more affordable, more flexible, and 100% transparent. There are no licensing fees. San Francisco would be free to improve its system without needing vendor permission. Anyone could service the system without San Francisco being locked into a single vendor.

Who supports this idea? In addition to open source and election integrity advocates, the Board of Supervisors and the San Francisco Elections Commission each unanimously passed resolutions supporting the development of an open source voting system. Supporters include the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), California Common Cause, GitHub, and Code for America's SF chapter.

Why doesn't an open source voting system already exist? The idea has been talked about for over 10 years, but building one requires leadership and financial resources. Existing vendors have not chosen to create a public system. 

What is the current status? In July 2016, the Mayor and Board of Supervisors allocated $300,000 to the Department of Elections for the Planning Phase / Phase 1 to work out next steps. In February 2017, the Department said it would hire a staff person to help lead the project, with the Planning Phase ending in January 2018. Also in February 2017, the Elections Commission voted for the Department to request that the Mayor set aside $4 million for initial development of the system, starting in the fiscal year beginning August 2018. 

When would the system be ready? The hope is to be ready for full deployment starting with the June 2020 election, with partial or pilot deployment starting with the November 2019 election or earlier. 

Who would develop the system and with what oversight? The Department of Elections could issue RFP's for outside organizations or firms to develop and certify individual system components. The Elections Commission oversees the Department of Elections. The Board of Supervisors must approve contracts. In addition, the Elections Commission recommends the formation of a citizen advisory committee for added transparency and public input. 

Has the California Secretary of State spoken publicly about open source voting? Secretary of State Alex Padilla said publicly in November 2015 that he thought it "quite possible" and "very likely" that an open source voting system would be certified by his office during his current term. In September 2016, he said on television that "open source is the ultimate in transparency and accountability for all." 

How can San Francisco reduce project risk? A voting system divides naturally into several smaller components. The Elections Commission recommends developing these components separately to reduce complexity and risk, as opposed to putting “all your eggs in one basket.” In addition, benefits accrue with each component that is developed and certified, independent of the others getting finished. Supportive organizations like foundations, companies, other jurisdictions, and even the State of California could contribute to the project since the system would benefit everyone. 

What about our current voting system? The contract for San Francisco's current system ends in December 2018. The Director of Elections has suggested leasing a new system at that point while the open source system is being developed. 

How can I help?

  • Tell Mayor Ed Lee and the Board of Supervisors that you support open source voting, and ask them to fund San Francisco's open source voting project.
  • Follow and retweet @SFOpenVoting on Twitter.
  • Keep tabs on progress by attending San Francisco Elections Commission meetings on the third Wednesday of each month at 6pm in Room 408 of SF City Hall.
  • Spread the word! 

For more information, contact Chris Jerdonek at chris.jerdonek@gmail.com or Pedro Hernandez at pedro@fairvote.org.

[1] See http://sfgov.org/electionscommission/motions-and-resolutions

[2] See https://opensource.org/osd