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.
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.”
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.