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The Messy Truth Behind the Drama Surrounding SF’s Elections Director

Written by Josh KoehnPublished Dec. 06, 2022 • 5:00am
John Arntz, the director of San Francisco's Department of Elections, saw his job status go into limbo after the Elections Commission voted last month to conduct a nationwide search. | Courtesy of ABC-7

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San Francisco’s elected leaders have reached a rare consensus when it comes to the drama over the non-reappointment of the city’s elections director.

United in their opposition to the potential ouster of John Arntz, the longtime head of the Department of Elections, neither the mayor nor any of the supervisors wants to spend a nickel on the Elections Commission’s nationwide search to see if better options exist.

On Tuesday, the board will consider a resolution from Supervisor Aaron Peskin calling on the city to block funds for the candidate search while also advocating for Arntz’s reappointment. All of Peskin’s colleagues have already signed on in support.

When the commission met in closed session last month and voted 4-2 to launch a search to replace Arntz, condemnation rang out from across the political spectrum. Arntz is a straight white man, and commissioners said the reason for the vote was that they wanted to “expand equitable access” to the post. The idea that a competent elections head could get passed over for simply having the wrong identity was viewed as offensive and a mistake in priorities.

However, the commission’s controversial vote has more to do with a desire to make San Francisco a national leader on open-source voting, which uses software code that is free for the public to inspect, as well as broken trust between Arntz and certain members of the commission.

Nothing short of the future of San Francisco elections is at stake.

Staff carries out business at the Department of Elections in San Francisco on Aug. 11, 2022. | Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard

Butting Heads 

Up and down, the four commissioners who voted to open up a casting call said they felt it was important for the city to meet its standard for equity and inclusion by having an open hiring process for the department head. This is probably true for some commissioners, but less so for others.

Despite what might have been said publicly, the discontent within the commission comes back to open-source voting, an operating system for elections that uses publicly available code to provide more transparency in results and, ideally, reduce costs. 

Open-source voting has its ardent supporters, perhaps none bigger than Chris Jerdonek, who serves as commission president. He and other elections activists—almost 20 spoke out at the meeting in which the commission declined to reappoint Arntz—have been advocating for a shift to open source for nearly two decades. Their patience is now running thin. 

Arntz has been seen as dragging his feet when San Francisco, in their view, could be a model for the rest of the nation in moving to open-source voting.

“The rest of the country tends to look at a big state like California for enlightenment for their own process,” said Brent Turner, an elections activist who has been hypercritical of Arntz. “And the fact that we haven’t moved forward in San Francisco, I think, can be attributed to his slow-walking of the process.

“Open-source voting is the one issue that unites both sides of the political aisle.”

No system for open-source currently exists to support San Francisco’s ranked-choice voting method, but supporters of this system say Arntz’s lackluster efforts are partly to blame. He recently defended his actions on open-source voting to the commission in a six-page memo laying out his efforts going back to 2011. 

“The idea that I’m against open source, and I’m stopping open source is just inaccurate,” Arntz said. “But my actions, from my perspective, have not met a very set perspective by people that support open source.”

Jerdonek previously acknowledged in an interview with The Standard that he and Arntz have “butted heads” for more than a year. But that long-simmering beef didn’t come to a head until this fall when commissioners finally met in closed session for the first time in 2022.

A Red Line

Everyone on the commission except Jerdonek is new this year, so none of the other members were around last year when Jerdonek and Arntz went toe-to-toe over a $1.5 million grant to explore internet voting.

Internet voting—the concept of connecting election machines to the web—is illegal in California and a no-go zone for open-source voting boosters, some of whom already suspect election results can be manipulated by Dominion, which holds a contract with San Francisco, and other companies with proprietary software. Under state law, voting systems are not allowed to be connected to the internet due to hacking concerns.

Jerdonek and other open-source supporters were livid when they learned the SF Elections Department had applied for a $1.5 million grant from the Bay Area Urban Areas Security Initiative to explore internet voting instead of focusing more on open-source voting. Arntz said the main goal of the grant was to explore how the internet could be utilized to create better access for people with disabilities. 

In a commission meeting in November 2021, Jerdonek and others grilled Arntz over his lack of communication on the grant. Arntz told the commission that he hadn’t seen the request for proposal (RFP). 

“I haven’t read the RFP, Commissioner Jerdonek, so I don’t know what’s in there,” Arntz said.

But a public records search launched by open-source voting supporters would later find Arntz had multiple conversations over email about how to fine-tune the language for the RFP. 

This screenshot shows an email John Arntz sent in March 2021 regarding a $1.5 million grant his department was seeking. Months later, Arntz told the commission he had not read the grant request.

Jerdonek and his open-source voting allies saw Arntz’s statement as a blatant lie. 

Trent Lange, president of the elections transparency group California Clean Money Campaign, has been one of Arntz’s fiercest critics, saying the city needs an elections director who “the public knows will always be open and truthful.”

Arntz told The Standard that the emails his opponents are citing are being taken out of context.

“To be honest with you, if I read [the RFP], I don’t remember it to this day,” Arntz said. “I did get those [emails on] criteria, and that’s what I was responding to—just those criteria that were sent to me.” 

The Board of Supervisors doesn’t seem too concerned over this allegation considering its support for Peskin’s resolution.

“I can’t speak for [Arntz] as to whether he lied or forgot or mischaracterized something or didn’t understand—I have no idea,” Peskin said. “In my experience, he seems like a straightforward, honest person.”

A narrative that San Francisco’s elections director was not reappointed because he is a white man is mostly false. The truth is much messier.
Supervisor Aaron Peskin, pictured in San Francisco on Jan. 22, 2020, said he has no intention of letting the city spend money on a search for a new elections director. | Lea Suzuki/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

Power of the Purse

Jerdonek, Lange, Turner and other open-source voting supporters have argued that supervisors are barred from interfering with the commission’s work as an independent body. They cite the city charter, which explicitly states that supervisors should not interfere with the commission’s work, including the appointment of an elections director.

But politics in the real world rarely play out the same way policy is written on a page.

Peskin said the Board of Supervisors is under no obligation to pay for an elections director candidate search, and only the mayor can “call interference.” He added that the actions of the supervisors aren’t taking place behind closed doors, which would constitute interference.

“Whoever this guy Trent Lange is doesn’t know shit from Shinola about San Francisco law and our charter,” Peskin said. “And if he thinks that I’m stupid enough not to have run this all by the city attorney, he’s an idiot.”

Jerdonek urged Peskin in a conversation last week to delay a vote on his resolution so the Elections Commission could meet on Dec. 12 and provide additional reasoning for the candidate search.

“It would be very disappointing if the board doesn’t provide funding,” Jerdonek told The Standard in a statement. “The voters gave the commission this responsibility when it passed Prop. E in 2002. The board would be preventing what should be an independent commission from carrying out one of its main responsibilities.”

Peskin, who was miffed by the commission’s failure to give any supervisors a heads-up before they voted to bypass Arntz’s reappointment, told The Standard he is open to holding off for a week. But his thinking is unlikely to change.

“Look, the bottom line is the Board of Supervisors has the power of the purse, and we just unanimously stated that we intend to deny them any funds for their shotgun attempt to replace the incumbent director,” Peskin said.

With the expectation that no funds will be freed up to hire a recruitment firm, not to mention a looming April deadline for the commission to appoint an elections director, it seems the commission may not have enough time or money to conduct a meaningful search. They could be forced to bashfully go back to Arntz and give him another five-year term when all the smoke has cleared. 

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Josh Koehn can be reached at [email protected]


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