Open Source Elections System: Update from City & County of San Francisco, California USA

The OSI has has voiced our support to recent efforts by the City and County of San Francisco’s Department of Elections to develop an open source voting system. The following is an update provided to the OSI from Commissioner and Vice President of the Elections Commission, Chris Jerdonek.

A lot has happened this past month in the movement for San Francisco to develop and certify the country’s first open source voting system!

As a reminder, this would be a paper-ballot system running on commercial-off-the-shelf hardware, so it would be 100% transparent to the public, as well as more affordable and more flexible to the City.

This e-mail contains an extended update to bring you up to speed on much of what has happened since last month. It is organized into the following sections:

1. City budget progress
2. New supporters!
3. More presentations & media coverage
4. Related news

On to the first update section…


The SF open source voting system project continues to work its way through the City’s budget process.

The Mayor will submit his citywide draft budget to the Board of Supervisors on or before June 1. Thus, the Mayor will continue to decide over the next month whether and how much money to allocate to the project for the City’s next two fiscal years (starting July 1, 2016 when the City’s fiscal year begins).

If you recall, in February the SF Department of Elections requested $2.3 million for the first year of the project, and more for the second year. The Mayor has since referred the project to the City’s Committee on Information Technology (COIT) for review. COIT is a 16-member body made up of city department heads and charged with setting the overall technology direction of the city government.

The Department of Elections presented the open source voting system project to COIT’s Budget and Performance Sub-Committee at its public meeting on Friday, April 1. The open source voting project is one of about 60 city technology projects that the sub-committee reviewed and discussed this year. On Friday, April 15, the sub-committee voted to recommend that $300K out of COIT’s $10.5 million allocation go to the project (as part of a larger vote making recommendations on all 60 projects). The $300K is enough to fully fund the “planning phase” (Phase 1) of the project.

This is good news in that it shows support for the project in concept from the sub-committee by them “green-lighting” it. However, it’s not enough to fund anything beyond planning in the first year. For example, in the absence of additional funds, the earliest the Department of Elections would be able to issue its first RFP for actual development work would be July 2017. It’s important for the City to use each month that passes effectively, since it’s not clear how long the Department will be able to continue using its current, aging voting system.

Remember that the alternative to the City developing and certifying an open source system is to procure a proprietary voting system like it did before. In 2007, this carried the hefty price tag of $13.8 million for the first four years ($15.8 million in today’s dollars). And that rose to $19.7 million (unadjusted) when including through the end of 2016. But going the open source route requires giving the Department enough support and lead time for development and certification.

The full COIT body will be taking into account the COIT sub-committee’s recommendation and making its own funding recommendation, most likely at its meeting on Friday, May 6, 2016 at 10am in Room 305 of SF City Hall. The Mayor will use COIT’s recommendation in informing his own decision as to how much money to allocate for the project.

There is still time to contact the Mayor and recommend that the Department’s full budget request be granted. The Mayor will submit his draft budget to the Board of Supervisors by June 1


More significant names have added their voices to the list of supporters asking Mayor Lee and the Board of Supervisors to fully fund the project to be ready in time for the June 2020 election.

At its April 13, 2016 meeting, the San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee (DCCC) passed a powerful resolution “urging the Mayor and Board of Supervisors to champion and fully fund … the development and certification of an open source voting system.” See the bottom of this e-mail for the full text of the resolution. The DCCC resolution is significant because the DCCC is a large body made up of 32 member-leaders, including several local, state, and national elected officials. The resolution passed without any opposition. Kudos to the SF DCCC for recognizing the importance of this issue!

The following San Francisco organizations and individuals also added their voices in the last month:

San Francisco Technology Democrats (SF Tech Dems)
Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club
Brian Behlendorf, Co-Founder of the Apache Software Foundation
Nadia Eghbal, open-source writer, researcher, and speaker
and many others.

(The latest list can be found in one of the handouts here:

To add your own name to the list or to suggest a different organization to approach, feel free to e-mail me back.

Additional fun fact: In the process of watching the DCCC resolution process unfold, I learned that the California Democratic Party’s 2016 Platform itself supports open-source voting. See the bottom of this e-mail for details and the actual language around open source voting in their platform.


On March 24, the day I last sent an e-mail update, the Board of Supervisors Rules Committee held a hearing on the open source voting system project. The hearing focused on the timeline and budget for the project.

For a video of the hearing, you can visit the following link (the agenda item starts 3:02:06 into the meeting, or else click the last hyperlinked agenda item to the right):

The agenda packet for the hearing can be found here (including slides for a presentation I gave at the beginning of the hearing):

One exciting development on this: one of NBC News’s investigative teams attended and filmed the Rules Committee hearing for an upcoming series they’re doing on voting machines. The series will air sometime this summer, with one of the segments focusing on San Francisco’s open source voting project. This is great news (literally)!

Also, last Friday I gave a brief presentation at a San Francisco tech event called Open Source Show & Tell:

The audience was very interested and supportive of the project.

If you know any groups that might like a brief presentation on the project, feel free to get in touch with me.


In related news, a month and a half ago, the White House issued an exciting federal draft source code policy on software custom-developed for the government.

The draft policy heavily featured open source. Public comment on the policy closed a week ago last Monday, April 18. Many state and federal agencies commented publicly in support of the use of open source software, including 18F (an innovative branch of the federal GSA, with an office at our own UN Plaza near City Hall), the California Health and Human Services Agency, the California Department of Technology, and the Department of Homeland Security.

[The OSI also provided comments.]

The California Health and Human Services Agency and California Department of Technology, for example, wrote publicly, “California endorses the Federal government’s position on the use of open source software and feels strongly that it is an excellent investment as a public good….”

Finally, two Sundays ago the New York Times wrote an excellent editorial on the sorry state of voting machines in our country (“Why Americans Can’t Vote,” 4/16/2016). I encourage you to take a look:

The editorial is further background to the critical importance of the SF open source voting project, not just to elections in San Francisco but across the country. It’s another sign that SF is focusing on something important.

Thanks for reading this e-mail, and thank you for your continued support!


Resolution passed by the San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee (DCCC) at its April 13, 2016 meeting:


WHEREAS, elections are a public process at the core of our democracy and so demand the highest levels of transparency, accessibility, security, and integrity; and

WHEREAS, proprietary voting software and hardware are hidden from public view, lead to private vendor lock-in, and result in perpetual software licensing fees and service contracts that are expensive to taxpayers without investing in a lasting public good; and

WHEREAS, the Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution authored by Supervisor Scott Wiener supporting the creation of an open source voting system running on commodity hardware, a system whose software would be free for anyone to view, use, and improve, and so be 100% transparent to the public, more affordable, more adaptable, and would benefit not just San Francisco but election jurisdictions across the United States.

NOW THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that the San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee (DCCC) finds the objectives of an open source voting system to be central to the Democratic Party’s core values of active and transparent voter participation and therefore supports the creation and use of a paper- ballot open source voting system that can run on inexpensive, commercially available hardware; and

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the DCCC join the San Francisco Elections Commission, California Common Cause, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), Code for San Francisco, and many other individuals and organizations in urging the Mayor and Board of Supervisors to champion and fully fund, starting with the upcoming 2016-2017 fiscal year, the development and certification of an open source voting system for San Francisco to use starting with the June 2020 election.

(Introduced by DCCC member Joshua Arce and co-sponsored by Rebecca Prozan)

Excerpt of the parts of the California Democratic Party 2016 Platform mentioning open source voting:

California Democratic Party 2016 Platform

We demand open and fraud-free elections and incontrovertible government accountability to the electorate. … We support public ownership of all election processes, software and equipment. … To promote honest leadership and open government, California Democrats will … Demand transparency at every stage with voting system software (including open-source software);