Statement from former FairVote staffer Steven Hill at the news conference following the filing of a lawsuit against the City and County of San Francisco for failure to implement instant runoff voting (IRV)
Good morning, and thank you to members of the media and the public for attending.
Some have asked, Why are we filing this lawsuit today against the City and County of San Francisco? Why not do the "reasonable" thing, and wait until next year for IRV implementation? The answer is very simple. The Department of Elections and the Elections Commission have had 17 months to implement instant runoff voting. Not six months, not twelve months, but 17 months. It's been nearly a year and a half since Proposition A was passed on March 5, 2002. We think that'Ts enough time, more than enough time. Furthermore, we still think IRV is doable this November. We do not believe the Department of Elections has explored all possible options. We believe the Department of Elections has made several key mistakes, endangering the success of implementation. Looking at the long list of excuses employed for not using IRV this year, and mindful of the frequent election schedule over the next year, including elections and potential elections in October, November, December, March, and June which provide more excuses to not implement, and wary of the powerful political forces arrayed against IRV implementation, we are not confident that we will see an IRV election next year.
So we are going to court to ensure that the law -- and the will of the voters -- is upheld, and that instant runoff voting is implemented on schedule. My organization, the Center for Voting and Democracy, is proud to be joined by organizations and individuals as co-plaintiffs that represent a true cross-section of San Francisco, including the Congress of California Seniors, Chinese Progressive Association, San Francisco Labor Council, AFL-CIO, and the California Public Interest Research Group (CalPIRG), and individuals Gwenn Craig, Enrique Asis, Tracy Baxter, and Arthur Chang.
Here's a quick recap of why we think the city should implement instant runoff voting this year.
1. As a matter of law, December runoff elections now are illegal. The charter amendment implementing instant runoff voting wiped out the old part of the charter that allowed for December runoff elections. If the City is allowed to run a December election anyway, without charter authorization or without a judge's order, what does that say about the power of laws and the "will of the people"? The voice of democracy will have suffered irreparable harm, a diminution of popular sovereignty.
2. If the City is allowed to run a December election without charter authorization or without a judge's order, then why can't the City move the November election back to December, and use IRV? Moving the date of the election seems as doable to us -- and better fulfills the law -- than running an illegal December runoff.
3. The gubernatorial recall election is going to put the Department of Elections under even greater stress than usual. If it has to hold a December runoff, that means three elections in 10 weeks and four elections in five months. Taking one election off that calendar will save around $4 million and allow them to focus on conducting the other elections better.
4. All the benefits of IRV -- that caused voters to strongly pass it in March 2002 -- still hold true today. It will save taxpayers millions that currently are wasted paying for an unnecessary second election. It is a clear form of campaign finance reform, since candidates do not have to raise money for a second election (also, see the excellent San Francisco Ethics Commission resolution at www.fairvote.org/sf , which states unequivocally that IRV is needed to stanch the fourfold increase in independent expenditures that occurs during the December runoff). It maximizes turnout in the decisive November election, particularly in minority precincts that see disproportionate declines in voter turnout during low-turnout December runoffs. It will more likely elect winners who have support from the majority, AND accomplish this in one election. It will create decrease hack-attack politics and polarizing campaigns, since winning candidates will have incentives to build coalitions and try and appeal to the supporters of other candidate for their number 2 ranking.
5. If IRV is abandoned this year, there is absolutely no guarantee that it will be used next year. Director of Elections John Arntz won't give it a thought until after next March's primary, and given what happened this year, that makes us very nervous. We also expect opponents -- particularly the consultants and the powerful political forces who don't like IRV for self-interested reasons -- will attempt to repeal it.
6. The City has more time to await certification of its upgraded voting equipment than it is alleging. The equipment has been upgraded, and its vendor, ES&S, is awaiting certification at the Secretary of State's office. In our lawsuit we will ask the judge to determine when is the last possible moment when the plug can be pulled on awaiting certification of the upgraded voting machines. The recent federal ruling on the recall bolsters our contention that the Department doesn't have to make that decision until the third week in September. Our attorney says that federal decision is loaded with points useful to our case, including the stipulation by the Secretary of State and registrars of two large counties (Los Angeles and San Diego) not to print, mail or distribute any ballots or instructions on the recall voting procedures until August 20 -- for an Oct. 7 election! This arms us with a powerful example of how rapidly elections materials and procedures can be altered up to a point reasonably close to an election. The analogous date for a November 4th election would be the third week in September. And that would give the ES&S application time to be certified by the Secretary of State.
7. But the Department of Elections does not need to wait for the Secretary of State to implement instant runoff voting. We have another ready alternative. It is called a "hand count," conducted on paper ballots. Britain, Ireland and Australia have run IRV hand-counts for many decades. Let me be clear: I am NOT talking about the "John Arntz method," the so-called "partial hand count" that was projected to cost $2.3 million and could not guarantee election results in 28 days, and consequently was denied certification by the Secretary of State. I'm talking about a low-tech solution but a real solution. A firm with years of experience in conducting IRV hand-counts has forwarded to the Department of Elections a sound proposal. This firm would run a hand count of IRV ballots and produce election results in TWO days -- not 28 -- and for little more than $250,000. That's a tenth of the cost of the "John Arntz method," and a fraction of the $4 million cost of a second citywide election in December. Moreover, because this method does not involve the use of voting equipment, it does not require certification by the Secretary of State, since the Secretary's certification process only applies to equipment and machines.
8. Voters in other places again and again have demonstrated that simply numbering candidates is a very easy task. Ranked ballots have resulted in extremely low rates of ballot spoilage, attesting to the ease of use for voters. In fact, paper ballot systems often have lower voter error rates than voting machines. When Ann Arbor, Michigan use instant runoff voting on traditional paper ballots in 1975, just a few months after its adoption by voters in November 1974, voter error declined sharply, from 2.3% to 1.2%. New York's local school board elections using ranked ballots not only have produced more representation for minority communities than any other election in New York, but there has been a lower rate of voter error for those elections than in the presidential election. Internationally, instant runoff voting is used to elect the president of Ireland and a similar ranked-choice system is used to elect the parliament of Malta. In both elections, a paper ranked ballot is used, and the rate of invalid ballots is typically less than 1.0% - well below the national error rate of more than 2% in the American presidential election in 2000.
9. We have a strong legal case. A low-tech solution for a hand count using paper ballots does not require certification by the Secretary of State, and there's plenty of time to implement it by November 4. IRV is the law, December runoffs are not. Charter cities have broad discretion under California law and the California Constitution to change their charter and decide local election matters for themselves. And an IRV election in November will make the Department of Election' job EASIER, not more difficult, since they can outsource the ballot-counting under a pure hand count plan to the other firm, and they will no longer have to start planning for a December election in September. They can enjoy their holidays for a change.
In short, instant runoff voting for this November is doable, legal, and desirable. It upholds the will of the voters ,which desires to get rid of December elections and use instant runoff voting to elect local offices. We have a top-notch lawyer to make our arguments in court. Lowell Finley is an experienced election law attorney, and now, I turn you over to him to answer any legal questions that you might have.