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Politics & Policy

Search for new SF elections chief is perfect fodder for right-wing Thanksgiving discourse

Controversy is swirling around the San Francisco Department of Elections after the commission overseeing the agency decided not to reappoint John Arntz as director. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

San Francisco gave Fox News and conservative uncles, cousins and in-laws all the red meat they needed for this year’s Thanksgiving dinner discourse, as city leaders decided to search for a new elections chief because the current one is good at his job but also a white man.

If that reductive take sounds too on-the-nose for San Francisco’s woke political reputation, rest assured that the city’s Elections Commission is also accused of wasting taxpayer money in the process. 

John Arntz has served as director of the Department of Elections for 21 years, and his current five-year term—expiring in May—might have marked the most impressive chapter in what’s widely considered an impeccable career.

Not only did Arntz reform a department mired in chaos in the early aughts, but he also led the city’s shift to almost exclusively mail-in voting in 2020 for one of the most consequential presidential elections in history—a feat made all the more challenging by the pandemic. Arntz and his team also just oversaw five elections in a little more than a year with no major complaints about coordination or accuracy of results.

But in a 4-2 vote after a closed-session meeting last week, the Elections Commission decided to open a casting call for outside candidates in hopes of achieving more diversity, equity and inclusion in city leadership. Mission Local’s Joe Eskenazi first reported the decision.

In a phone interview Tuesday, Arntz sounded downright mystified by the commission’s vote—and sources around City Hall suspect there is more going on here than simply meeting the city’s diversity, equity and inclusion goals.

Arntz said he has not decided on whether he will reapply in an open appointment process, but he noted that the decision has already affected morale in the department—and some experienced staffers could soon be looking elsewhere for jobs.

“The part I don’t like about all this is that this has been about me,” Arntz said. “It’s not about me. It’s about the people here in the department, because there are hundreds of people that showed up for election after election—through these horrible conditions—and they made all this happen.”

Commissioners have gone through contortions in explaining their surprising vote, which comes less than two years after the city gave Arntz a commendation for his department’s stellar work. 

Commissioner Cynthia Dai told The Standard that she voted to open the appointment process, which allows Arntz to apply like any other candidate, because she wanted “to support the mayor’s racial equity plan.”

But  Mayor London Breed herself, along with many supervisors at City Hall, opposed the commission’s decision.

Sources have told The Standard that some commissioners were frustrated with redistricting this spring, and that might have swayed how they voted. Arntz did not have a role in redistricting decisions but did contract with the mapping consultant.

Robin Stone, vice president of the commission, wrote in a Nov. 21 memo explaining her yes vote that she too wanted to “expand equitable access” to top department jobs. But she also hinted that a small but zealous cohort promoting open-source voting—known as OSV—have been bending the ears of commissioners.

OSV supporters believe this voting system, which makes the computer code available for public scrutiny, allows for more accountability and fewer costs.

Nearly a dozen people showed up for the Nov. 16 hearing and 18 more tuned in remotely, Stone said, calling the turnout “a vast deviation” from the few attendees who normally frequent Elections Commission meetings. What’s more, Stone added: All but one attendee who spoke at the session urged commissioners to open recruitment based on perception of Arntz’s lack of support for OSV.

She ended her email saying: “I would like to state unequivocally that under no circumstances did OSV have any bearing on my difficult decision to vote in favor of a competitive selection process.

Stone added the bolded and underlined emphasis on her own, and we leave it to readers to decide if the commissioner doth protest too much.

Chris Jerdonek—a software developer, president of the Elections Commission and a vocal supporter of OSV—acknowledged in a phone interview Wednesday that he has clashed with Artnz on the subject of open source.

“You could say that we’ve butted heads,“ Jerdonek said. “I’ve been kind of leading that issue on the commission.”

The California Secretary of State recently shot down a pilot program in San Francisco, but Jerdonek pointed to a successful effort in New Hampshire and said at the Nov. 16 meeting that the city’s version was never given a chance to show its potential.

Regardless, Jerdonek said on Wednesday that the decision to launch an elections chief search is simply about seeing who else is out there, and the hunt for new talent does not preclude Arntz’s reappointment before the mid-April deadline to appoint an elections director.

“The country is a big place, and I think John does many things well, but I’m sure it’s possible that there can be someone better out there,” Jerdonek said.

A search for a new elections director will reportedly cost the city as much as $50,000, but Supervisor Aaron Peskin told The San Francisco Chronicle that his board colleagues won’t sign off on that expense. 

So, in the end, all of this might be moot.

Of course, none of this has stopped the conservative media echo chamber and prolific tweeters from picking up the story.

“A lot of this stuff from those outlets, it’s kind of like [the game] telephone,” Jerdonek said. “They’re getting the story from stories on other stories, and then these stories aren’t explaining it correctly. We’re not firing him. His term is ending, and we can still reappoint him later.”

Good luck packaging all of this into a quick Thanksgiving dinner retort. And pass the stuffing.

Annie Gaus contributed additional reporting for this story.
Josh Koehn can be reached at