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San Francisco Finds Fix For Election Day Tech Snafu

InternetWeek.com. November 5, 2004. By Antone Gonsalves. Courtesy of TechWeb News

San Francisco, which is no stranger to election snafus, has figured out the software problem that delayed some of the city's local election results, an official said Friday. While the city didn't know when the problem would be fixed, a spokesman said the Elections Department expected to easily meet the state's Nov. 30 deadline for certifying election results. Election Systems and Software Inc., the Omaha, Neb., company that sold the city the vote-counting system, said the problem stemmed from a safeguard in the software that converts optical scans of ballot results into data that the computer system uses to calculate winners. The conversion software shutdown when the amount of data entering the system had reached a level set by the vendor.

The safeguard was to prevent the system from exceeding its capacity. But after the breakdown, ESS determined the limitation was no longer necessary and received permission from the California Secretary of State to shut down the mechanism and restart the counting process, Ken Fields, spokesman for ESS, said.

The Golden Gate City's troubles began on Wednesday when the ESS software failed to accurately count votes in the city's new ranked-choice voting system, which eliminates the need for expensive runoff elections.

Under the process, which premiered on Tuesday, voters choose their first-, second- and third-choice candidates. Low-vote getters are eliminated and their votes are redistributed among the other candidates based on voters' second and third choices until one candidate comes out the winner. The system was used in races to a city supervisor for several districts. State and federal election officials have approved the process, which has required the city to spend more than $700,000 to educate voters. Voters approved the ranked-choice system in 2002. The ESS system, which worked well in tests before Election Day, was apparently unable to handle the workload, even though it wasn't a record turnout. More than 277,000 ballots have been processed so far, but the 1960 record of 348,000 votes cast is expected to remain intact. "There was a limitation on the volume of data that could be processed that (ESS) hadn't foreseen," the Election Department spokesman said. "(The software) couldn't combine all that data."

Director of Elections John Arntz said in a statement that they city has a paper record of every vote cast, and could conduct a hand-count, if necessary. However, that is not expected. "The department expects that ESS will fully resolve the problem within the next several days," Arntz said. San Francisco is no stranger to voting irregularities. In 2002, ballot-box lids were found floating in the San Francisco Bay, but election officials denied that any votes were tossed. A six-month investigation of the November 2000 election by the California Secretary of State's office found "significant irregularities" in the vote counts in 21 precincts, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.


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