Elections Director John Arntz, seen here in 2018, today said he'd long since grown tired of hearing about John Arntz and seeing John Arntz's picture in the paper. Photo by Lydia Chavez

L’Affaire John Arntz seems to have ended on Monday night, not with a bang but a whimper. The Elections Commission, facing blowback from every vestige of San Francisco’s governmental structure and with no prospect of a national search being funded, backed down on its plan to put the 20-year election director’s job up for a competitive process

“No money,” explained Supervisor Aaron Peskin, “no honey.” 

Instead, the commission last night moved to put the renewal of Arntz’s contract up to a vote in January; barring unforeseen lunacy he’ll get it. And, crucially, he’ll accept. 

Arntz confirmed to Mission Local that, if offered a fifth five-year term, he’d take it. And that was no sure thing: After the Elections Commission last month jolted San Francisco government by declining to preemptively renew Arntz’s term, Arntz says he received multiple offers from other jurisdictions, some of them out-of-state. Presumably, their elections commissions would be easier to work with than this city’s, and their cost of living less extreme.  

Arntz says he is relieved that he won’t have to leave his colleagues at the Department of Elections and won’t have to move out of San Francisco. 

“I became director of elections because I was interested in operations, and now we have people here who are just fantastic in supporting operations for elections,” he says. “We have this unbelievable investment toward supporting and helping voters. It’s amazing, and these sorts of situations don’t happen all the time in life. It’s unique to my work life and I think it’s unique for a lot of people.”

“No money, no honey.”

Supervisor Aaron Peskin

Arntz, 57, also said that he’s relieved to be out of the spotlight, where he was clearly uncomfortable serving as the subject matter of contentious stories that caught the attention of the national media. 

“Personally,” he says, “I was really tired of hearing about this John Arntz guy. I was tired of seeing his picture.” 

Calls to Elections Commission president Chris Jerdonek were not immediately returned. 

Arntz’s story caught fire nationally, due to the manner in which the Elections Commissions couched its decision to open up the job of one of San Francisco’s few high-performing department heads, who leads one of the few departments that well and truly excels at its mission. 

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

Prior to Arntz taking over the department in 2002, it had cycled through five directors in as many years and was mired in scandals, general mistrust and fiscal insolvency. The elections boss was, in both 2020 and 2021, commended by his commission for his excellent work. A week after San Francisco’s fourth election of 2022, however, commissioners said Arntz’s performance was not a factor in the move to potentially replace him. Rather, it was an effort to boost the city’s diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. 

This was gift-wrapped catnip for Fox News and other national purveyors of right-wing grievance culture. But, perhaps more saliently, the Elections Commission’s overt clumsiness put San Francisco in a legally tenuous position. 

“It’s going to be difficult for the city to persuade a court that this is a legitimate decision on due process and discrimination,” University of California, Berkeley, law professor David Oppenheimer told Mission Local last month. “I think the city has a difficult case to defend.” 

Also last month Peskin pledged that neither the board nor mayor would cough up “a damn penny” for a national candidate search. That happened, and this act of political brinksmanship appears to have been a deciding factor in forcing the commission’s hand. 

“This is not a permanent policy of the board and mayor to not appropriate funds for a future search, but there is a proper way to go about these things,” Peskin says. “The proper way is to start this process well in advance, not say eight days after the fourth election of a year that they are going out for a nationwide search, which they never were gonna get done in three months anyway.” 

Peskin deadpanned that this “is not what I wanted to spend my time on,” but that “it was a pleasant reminder that the people of this city and the ultimate decision-makers are actually quite sane. All 11 members of the board and the mayor instantly got it. People left, right, and center who are involved in San Francisco elections got it.” 

The only professed reason for establishing a competitive process to fill Arntz’s job was the diversity issue. Heading up to the Elections Commission’s November decision, however, many in the department were expecting such a move, based upon dissatisfaction among fervent advocates for open-source voting. 

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. San Francisco presently contracts with Dominion Voting Systems — though a .pdf of all the hundreds of thousands of individual ballots cast in every election is produced and available for anyone wishing to review it.

“Personally, I was really tired of hearing about this John Arntz guy. I was tired of seeing his picture.” 

Elections director john arntz

As Mission Local wrote last month, city efforts to further open-source voting systems have been hamstrung 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. No open-source platform is yet able to handle ranked-choice voting and character-based languages like Chinese, both of which are de rigueur in San Francisco. 

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

In the end, despite the wishes of an intense subset of open-source voting stalwarts, the purpose of the Department of Elections is not to develop and institute a particular voting system. Rather, the Department of Elections’ raison d’être is to run free and fair elections. 

“This is a good resolution to what was a completely avoidable situation,” says mayoral spokesman Jeff Cretan. “It shouldn’t take a firestorm for this City to recognize that we have dedicated public servants like John Arntz working quietly every day. The Mayor is very pleased that John will be continuing to do a stellar job running our elections.”

With his own plight now seemingly settled, Arntz is back to doing what seems to make him happy: Working on the next election. There is not a scheduled election in San Francisco until mid-2024, but it’s never too soon to begin figuring things out. 

Considering the size and importance of that election, there may be a truly massive number of candidates and ballot measures. The gargantuan ballot of the November, 2022, election required ballot five cards, and Arntz is anticipating six, seven or even eight in two year’s time. San Francisco, he says, is stretching the capacity of what its election department and even the local post office can handle — and, intuitively, running a six-, seven-, or eight-card election will require much more processing time than smaller past elections. 

“This is the stuff we do when we don’t have an election: We think about stuff like that and the ripple effects,” he said. Arntz thanked anyone who’d offered well-wishes and appreciation to his staff for the work they do over the past month. But they’re already on to the next thing. 

“There are going to be changes for us. But we want voters to experience as few changes as possible.” 

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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. Oh the webs we weave.. Joe Eskanazi became the main “player” in Microsoft / Silicon Valley’s mission to keep open source voting bogged down in San Francisco. Mission Local lit the fuse for Tucker Carlson and Fox to mis-report that “Arntz was fired for being white”. This was obviously not true but the Election Commission was soon pressured into a reconsideration mode. This shows what shoddy reporting coupled with Peskin’s political / lobbyist pressure can do to manipulate the landscape. Hopefully we learn from our mistakes and eventually move toward upgrading the ” secret software ” corporate controlled vote counting systems for a more trustworthy open source model

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    1. Thanks Brent. Who knew Joe Eskenazi was so formidable with such power. I hope he didn’t take payment for his services rendered to “Microsoft/Silicon Valley” in crypto. And Tucker Carlson reads Mission Local? Is he a donor? And if Arntz wasn’t going to be rehired because he was white, nor because he was not good at his job, what was the problem? Competence?

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    2. Consider interviewing the election commissioners: Jerdonek, Dai, LiVolsi, Stone, Bernholz, Crowley and (Vacant).
      So far, only (Vacant) has been forthcoming and informative.
      Somebody on that commission pressed the “appropriate” buttons on the other commissioners to obtain the three other votes and set this circus in motion.

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    1. This is a dumb take. Yes Open Sourced software can have bugs. Some of the exploits, as you point out, are serious and show that no software is bug-free and Open Source is not a panacea.

      However, there are far less exploits in widely used open source software that has a strong community support. The whole history of Microsoft Windows is a shining example of the benefits of public review of critically important code.

      Finally, the idea of open source in terms of voting is critical to ensure than no _other code_ has been added to the system, and the algorithms used are well understood to be fair. There really is no downside to public review of the software that supports our Democracy.

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  2. At what point do we assume conflicts of interest (or even corruption) for department heads appointed by the same people as the ones who have already been indicted? Nonprofit heads don’t get their contracts renewed all the time and there doesn’t need to be a reason, so what’s the difference here?

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  3. If we’re going to get rid of white men in SF government for diversity reasons, we should probably start with Peskin.

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  4. Joe,

    A “well oiled San Francisco machine” as the Dominion rep told another industry rep in a bar lounge in a far away city …

    if machines are hacked it is possible not to just rig the outcome at a counting room level

    it is possible by one hacked ‘Proprietary’ algorithms …

    to change results remotely from another continent …

    Not saying that’s been happening but it has been possible.

    We don’t know because virtually every machine in the country is a Dominion with a ‘Proprietary’ counting algorithm.

    It’s not surprise some millions of us want Open Source counting.

    Arntz has made it a hallmark of his career to block Open Source Voting for San Francisco and he will continue to do so.

    Hey, it’s as it should be.

    Viewed as a Hippie.

    Go Niners !


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