Elections Director John Arntz, seen here in 2018. Photo by Lydia Chavez

Elections director John Arntz, who oversees one of the few San Francisco departments that unambiguously accomplishes its core mission, has not been renewed for his post by the city’s Elections Commission. 

By a vote of 4-2 after a lengthy Wednesday closed-session meeting, the commission opted to not re-up Arntz for the position he has held since 2002. The position will come open in May, 2023. 

The vote to not renew Arntz’s five-year term came not quite eight days after the city’s fourth election in the calendar year, and fifth election in one year’s time. 

In 2021, the Elections Commission wrote to the mayor that “San Francisco runs one of the best elections in the country and we believe this transparent process has allowed us to continue to improve our elections.” In 2020, it wrote Arntz a commendation “for his incredible leadership … The Department successfully ran two elections this year while facing significant challenges, including national threats to election security, mandatory vote-by-mail operations to all registered voters, anticipated increase in voter participation, budget cuts, and the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The reaction across the city’s political spectrum has been one of disbelief — and anger. 

“I think some folks have forgotten the history of this department,” said City Attorney David Chiu. “Before Director Arntz, we had five directors in as many years, ballot boxes floating in the bay and an intense lack of confidence in city elections. Many of us are mystified.” 

Supervisor Aaron Peskin added, “This is commission malfeasance. It almost becomes a justification for Mayor Breed to have letters of resignation from people who go do things that are completely insane.” 

Mayor London Breed did not go there, but did say that the Elections Commission’s move was ill-advised.

“John Arntz has served San Francisco with integrity, professionalism and has stayed completely independent. He’s remained impartial and has avoided getting caught up in the web of City politics, which is what we are seeing now as a result of this unnecessary vote,” she wrote.

“Over the last year, John successfully ran four elections, while navigating a pandemic that thwarted San Francisco into crisis response — all without a single issue. Rather than working on key issues to recover and rebuild our City, this is a good example of unfair politicization of a key part of our government that is working well for the voters of this city.”

Elections Commissioner Cynthia Dai, who voted to not renew Arntz’s contract, said there was no performance-based reason for the commission’s decision. She did not dispute that San Francisco has run free, fair and functional elections for 20 years. Rather, she says, it was time to open up this position to a more diverse field; the city, she said, could not make progress on its racial equity goals without opening up its top positions. 

“Our decision wasn’t about your performance, but after twenty years we wanted to take action on the City’s racial equity plan and give people an opportunity to compete for a leadership position,” reads an email sent from commission president Chris Jerdonek to Arntz. “We also wanted to allow enough time for a fair and equitable process and conduct as broad a search as possible.”

Jerdonek told Mission Local that Arntz’s level of performance did not factor into this decision and he looked forward to a competitive process and a broad array of qualified candidates. His  letter invited Arntz to re-apply for his own job next year. Reached for comment, Arntz said he does not yet have a public answer on whether he plans to do so. 

Board appointee Jerdonek, City Attorney appointee Dai, District Attorney’s office appointee Robin Stone and Public Defender’s office appointee Renita LiVolsi voted to not renew Arntz’s contract. Mayoral appointee Nancy Crowley and treasurer appointee Lucy Bernholz voted to keep him.  

Elections boss John Arntz shows his cards tonight at City Hall. Early results are in. Photo by Annika Hom, November, 2020.

All 12 of the managers in Arntz’s department, without his knowledge, wrote a letter to the commission ahead of time, pleading with them to re-appoint him. Their input was disregarded and, during Wednesday’s meeting, their letter does not appear to have been acknowledged. 

The rationale offered by the commission struck Elections staffers as bizarre. 

“This all happened eight days after the Nov. 8 election,” said deputy elections director Nataliya Kuzina. “They discarded the opinion of the very same people who have been conducting city elections, and discarded the director with a proven record to do his job. He has extensive election experience and knowledge. People whom he manages are supportive of Director Arntz. So, those are the facts in front of us. Considering all these facts, this decision seems to have been driven by something else.” 

That something else is a push for “open-source voting,” a matter of intense, even overriding concern among a subset of San Francisco election-watchers. Proponents argue that open-source voting would enable San Francisco to develop its own software code for its voting system, and make it publicly available for anyone to view it. As it is, the city contracts with Dominion Voting Systems — though a .pdf of all the hundreds of thousands of individual ballots cast in every election is produced.

Both Dai and Jerdonek said that the move to not renew Arntz’s contract was unrelated to the lack of progress on instituting open-source voting systems in San Francisco. 

During Wednesday’s meeting, however, public comment leading up to the closed session was dominated by recriminations about this city’s lack of progress in instituting open-source voting. And Arntz himself seemed wary of the commission’s professed motive: “Nothing else has been mentioned in relation to my performance in the job but open-source.”  

In fact, city efforts to further open-source voting systems have been stymied for a number of reasons beyond the control of Arntz or any San Francisco-based person or entity. In May, Secretary of State Shirley Weber denied the city’s request to run an open-source voting pilot project. 

What’s more, Kuzina and Elections Department colleague Mayank Patel note that no extant open-source platform can yet handle ranked-choice voting and character-based languages, including Chinese, both baseline requirements in San Francisco. 

“Wanting to go to open-source is fine. But we also have to give credit that the current voting system is accurate and is not a faulty system,” said Patel, the department’s manager of poll workers and field support. 

Patel noted that, as he spoke to Mission Local, he was in a warehouse leading a manual tabulation of 1 percent of all ballots to compare them against the machine-counted totals. 

“Yesterday, we had 70 people doing that,” he said. “And we had no observers here this whole weekend, because it’s not important to validate our voting systems. There were no discrepancies.” 

John Arntz in 2018. Photo by Mallory Newman.

Peskin contrasted the “Wild West” behavior and distrust of the Elections Department two decades ago with the “smooth-running machine” under Arntz. In a nation where increasing portions of the populace voice ill-founded concerns about the sanctity of elections, no serious people in San Francisco are doing that. 

“This is demoralizing and humiliating to John, and to the staff of the department,” Peskin said. “Rarely do you see employees of a department come together to champion their boss, and that is the case here.” 

Dai said the Elections Commission would be looking to the mayor and Board of Supervisors for funds with which to conduct a search for Arntz’s potential replacement. 

Peskin’s rejoinder: Good luck with that. 

“I guarantee you that this Board and this mayor aren’t going to give them a damn penny.” 

Arntz will, within the next fortnight, certify the final election of 2022. The Elections Commission will, in the coming days and weeks, undertake his yearly performance review. 

When asked if the Elections Commission will write Arntz a commendation for his excellent performance as it has each of the past two years, Dai said that may be decided at the December meeting. 

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Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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    1. Brent — 

      “Refuted” would mean that they proved something. They didn’t. The members of the Elections Commission stated in writing in both public and private correspondences that there were not performance-based reasons for their actions. If there were, they should have stated them. Or perhaps stated nothing instead of putting the city in a legally tenuous place with the excuse they proffered.

      Your statements grow curiouser and curiouser.

      JE

  1. This racial equality nonsense is out of hand. Concerned about people of color? Quit electing Willie Brown real estate developer political machine candidates like London Breed, all of whom are the real culprits eradicating blacks from City

  2. Isn’t it illegal to fire someone based on their color? Or is white not considered to be a color? This completely baffles me, it’s no longer about whether you are qualified for the position but rather who you know or how the company appears.

  3. Joe,

    Pardon my intrusions but I’ve been waiting twenty years for a platform to say this …

    Give Arntz an extension of his present contract for two years contingent upon his delivering a working Open Source Voting System for the People of the City and County of San Francisco which he has been blocking for twenty years !!!

    Go Niners !!

    h.

  4. Is the Elections Commission afraid of too much competence from an older white male who has been doing his job flawlessly for 20 years? If the Commission’s decision is allowed to stand, it will set a bad precedent. Identity politics driving decision making is a form of corruption.
    I wholeheartedly agree with Nema’s comment: “Better to make sure the people working under Arntz are racially diverse and can succeed him after they learn from him how to run a great elections department.”

  5. The clear “f*ck me? no, f*ck you” move is for Arntz to throw his hat in the ring and let the commission sweat it.

    “Strategic planning” is the name of the CA affirmative action game. The elections commission is apparently oblivious to the tact and stealth needed in handling such a matter.

  6. If I were on that commission I would be resigning tonight.
    The commissioners are clearly out of touch with the thinking of the majority of San Franciscans. It’s also reason enough to never vote for Breed again, if she doesn’t clean up this mess.

  7. classic SF stupidity – get rid of someone who restores faith in the elections because of “feelings” by some appointees no one knows

    the amount of incompetence built in to the system is almost as baffling as that of FTX but not much

  8. Is it too cynical (always remember the grizzled old screenwriter telling the Hollywood rookie “Kid, in this town there’s no such thing as Too cynical”) to think maybe a competant City big shot is considered a bad example?

  9. This is an outrage. I am contacting my Supervisor today and suggest everyone who agrees do the same. This seems like the sort of thing that would happen in the political swamplands of Florida.

    1. It’s hilarious that despite mountains of evidence to the contrary that you believe that San Francisco is administered better than Florida. I guess this is why there’s so many people fleeing Florida to move to San Francisco in this imaginary world you live in?

    1. H. — 

      The Chronicle followed. It’s a big story and it’s not over yet.

      Thank you for the nutcracker. Really ties the room together.

      JE

      JE

      1. Hey newsroom,

        Y’all are best ‘nut crackers’ in town and I love you.

        On Elections thing, I’ve always been believer in Open Source as Saviour against fraud.

        Happy Thanksgiving to all of your readers,

        h.

  10. A lot (most?) of governance stuff in SF is broken to one degree or another.
    Mission Local has the reveals on a weekly basis.
    So – let’s take one of the few things in SF that ain’t broken and fix it.

    Future headlines:

    “San Francisco’s 10 million dollar open source election software 2 years behind schedule”
    “Cost overruns push election software costs to 15 million”
    “No timetable given for completion of election software”
    “Wrong type of ballast rock given as reason for election software delays”

    Add your own!
    There’s a million of ‘em!

  11. I’m curious what the other supervisors have said. Which are backing the Elections Commission decision and which have criticized or denounced it?

  12. So David Chiu, the City Attorney, is upset that John got axed. But one of the votes to axe him came from…..the City Attorney’s designee. You really can’t make this stuff up.

    Having lived through the many issues with elections prior to John, this is a ridiculous move. The guy brought stability to a decidedly unstable situation.

  13. A “fair and equitable process” in support of racial equity would be to keep running elections the way Arntz has done it: polling places every few blocks, open early and late, easy mail-in and drop-off options, nice, calm, orderly poll workers: these things make voting accessible to all people, rich and poor, old and young, night shift workers, disabled people, 2-job parents, everyone. Better to make sure the people working under Arntz are racially diverse and can succeed him after they learn from him how to run a great elections department.

  14. It appears the writer, like those who run for office and possibly need their future votes counted by Director Arnst, is predisposed to give this 20 year entrenhced white Republican male all benefit of the doubt. Thank goodness for the Elections Commission doing the hard work and standing up for equity by opening the job up to an appropriate search . When Steve Bennett from Dominion called the Dept of Elections his ” well oiled machine ” and said the people of SF were ignorant about elections, the Dept should have taken exception. Instead Arnst has attempted to back room another sole source sweetheart deal toward the proprietary code vendor while slow-walking the open source work directed by an 11-0 Board of Supervisors vote. Bennett and Arnst have been the focus of much negative local press and the public is demanding increased fairness and transparency. Obviously those running for future office and those working for the Director will not give their true opinions until Arnst is gone.

    1. Sir or madam — 

      You seem to know as much about San Francisco politics and the role the director of elections plays as you do about how to spell his name.

      Yours,

      JE

    2. The man did the job and did it well. Doesn’t matter what boxes he checks in his personal life or what political party he belongs to. The fact is that elections were handled smoothly.

  15. Am I reading this wrong? Seems like the commission wants the open source voting systems?

    While sympathetic to wanting to oust the for profit companies from government functions, I am failing to see how the day to day operations of true elections department need to include experiments on coding.

    Seems like a legislative thing. Like a job for the board to provide money for study or the state to pony up.

  16. I’m a law professor at UC Hastings and worked as a poll inspector in San Francisco multiple times. Each time I was blown away by the calm efficiency, 100% foreseeability of problems, and complete answer to every question. The Elections Department under John Arntz’s competent leadership has been a marvel – it is the one thing in the city that works seamlessly, without a hitch. I am outraged about this. What can I do?

    1. “it is the one thing in the city that works” TRUE. I have worked five elections as a pollworker and until I was involved, I couldn’t imagine just what a complex and difficult process this is, and how well prepared the department is.

      The elections commission, on the other hand, is demonstrably incompetent. The only people in this story who _should_ be fired are the elections commission themselves. The redistricting saga was an utter disgrace.

  17. Blue MAGA, emboldened by gerrymandering and flush with tech cash, reveals that it feels unconstrained by any political checks.

    Is this a play for the City Family to get a tighter handle on ballot measures, the last redoubt of progressive political power?

    1. No, it appears that the “progressive” Election Commissioners, Board of Supervisors, Public Defender and (sometimes Y) City Attorney tipped the balance of power against Arntz.

  18. “Our decision wasn’t about your performance, but after twenty years we wanted to take action on the City’s racial equity plan and give people an opportunity to compete for a leadership position,” reads an email sent from commission president Chris Jerdonek to Arntz.

    wow!
    In other words, “You’re getting the axe because of the color of your skin”.

    180 degrees to Martin Luther King’s wishes.

  19. Campers !!

    I’d have been less surprised to see that Putin had been removed.

    But, no less encouraged.

    Anyone who spent as many hours as you did watching Arntz turn the Redistricting Task Force into, yet again, a ‘Resegregation’ Task Force Circa 2022′ ….

    Anyone who watched Arntz’s 20 hour sessions of lies and double-crosses as you did, Joe ??

    He played the ‘can’t lose’ poker hand of both his own and London’s appointees with an Orson Welles style sitting aside in his office where he pulled the blinds when conversing with London ??

    Bottom line there was two new Moderate districts where one breathed Progressives.

    That means less money for shelter and food and stairway projects for the Poor.

    Arntz did that not that long ago and you watched it, Joe.

    Give us Open Source Voting Algorithms !!!

    h.

    1. H. — 

      The task force members are appointed by the commission. Not the director. So that’s kind of a big difference.

      JE

      1. Joe,

        School me.

        I thought there were 3 appointing authorities …

        4 each by …

        Mayor

        BOS (chosen – or used to be – by their prez)

        Elections Commission (split placement by Gonzalez in 2001 w/Mayor up 4-3)

        So, Elections Commissions controlled by Mayor and overseen by Arntz is effectively controlled by Mayor thru Arntz.

        The ‘Fix’ John oversaw in the stacked Task Force was enuff to finally dump him and give us a chance at ‘Open Source’.

        Tell me where I’m wrong; I’m working from memory.

        h.

        1. H. —

          You’re quite wrong, actually. One mayor, one board, one Board of Ed. one treasurer, one City Attorney, one DA, one Public Defender.

          Yours,

          JE

          1. Joe,

            Yeah, Gonzalez did that with Ethics Commission as I recall here.

            It was 4-3 favoring Mayor (who previously had every single appointment) on Police and other commissions.

            I’m gonna stand by my basic claim that Mayor controls Elections Commission due to fact she appointed City Attorney and District Attorney and Head of School Board I believe also.

            I’m betting this is all about handing Arntz’ job to one of London’s minions while she still controls the Commission.

            Those 300 k jobs are rare even for SF.

            I’m guessing new Director will be good looking middle age Black man with no previous experience in the field.

            Kinda like London did when she dumped 30 year pro, Don Falk and replaced him with de rigeur good looking middle age Black man with no previous experience in the field.

            That outfit is tndc and, unlike Arntz who blocked reform for 20 years to keep our voting algorithms both secret and hackable …

            I lived in Falk’s bldgs for 12 years and they were honestly managed and pin neat.

            Whatever, Joe, you might like this guy but by blocking Open Source he has left our votes vulnerable on purpose.

            5 years late getting SF to Open Source I can understand.
            10 years? Sure, he’s slow learner.
            15 years?
            20 years?

            Joe, do you honestly think these Dominion machines can’t be hacked?

            Go Niners !

            h.

          2. H. — 

            Respectfully, I think you’re assembling an impressive string of poor prognostications based on bad information.

            That’s not how naming Arntz’s potential successor would work. That’s also not how Open Source works or how the city didn’t adopt it.

            JE

  20. “His letter invited Arntz to re-apply for his own job next year.”
    Right… even though the reasoning for the vote effectively makes clear that if you’re a white cis male, don’t bother.

  21. “Can’t make progress in our racial equity goals.” Nothing to do with performance. What a crock! Sounds like prima facie discrimination to me. Hopefully Arntz seeks legal counsel since his contract was not renewed for what seems an inappropriate reason. This commission needs to be replaced.

    1. These are at-will positions when the contract is up, but mentioning race as a factor for termination in open session has got to violate the spirit of, if not the letter of, Proposition 209.