San Francisco Weekly
City and state elections officials finally strike a
harmonious note in their erratic efforts to roll out
By Ron Russell
After months of foot-dragging
and finger-pointing, San Francisco elections officials – with a
boost from California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley – at last
appear ready and willing to get an instant runoff voting system up
and running in time for next November's municipal election.
The cutting-edge voting system, approved by voters in March 2002,
was supposed to be deployed this month in the races for mayor,
district attorney, and sheriff. But blunders and accusations of
political mischief have marked the city's dismal failure to get IRV
online. Elections officials, the company that supplies the city's
voting machines, and the secretary of state have blamed each other.
Rancor may have peaked just before the Nov. 4 election when
mayoral candidate and IRV backer Matt Gonzalez, flanked by an
official from Election Systems & Software, the voting-machine
vendor, accused Shelley of making it impossible to get the system
approved in time for this November. Gonzalez contended that Shelley
had "moved the goal posts [for certifying ES&S's equipment] a
number of times." Both he and the company official insisted that the
voting equipment was ready to go and could have been used had the
secretary of state not held things up.
Gonzalez, the Green Party candidate, is locked in a Dec. 9 runoff
with Democrat and fellow Supervisor Gavin Newsom. Shelley, a former
San Francisco supervisor and state assemblyman, has endorsed Newsom
Shelley has for months denounced accusations that his office
intervened to hold up IRV. And sources say that the secretary of
state was infuriated by the latest charges. Whether intended or not,
the brouhaha may have succeeded in giving the process a nudge.
Shelley rearranged his schedule last week to meet with city
Elections Department chief John Arntz and Alix Rosenthal, president
of the Elections Commission. The topic: how to move IRV forward.
Afterward, both Arntz and Rosenthal said that the secretary of state
had pledged to take an active role in seeing that IRV becomes a
reality by next November.
"He [Shelley] was very positive and left no doubt of his genuine
willingness to work with us to make it happen," said Rosenthal,
herself a target of criticism from IRV backers earlier this year
after she publicly expressed personal misgivings about instant
runoff voting. But Rosenthal told SF Weekly that she intends
to do "everything possible" to help smooth the way for IRV's rollout
next year, acknowledging that the Elections Commission's credibility
-- and her own -- is at stake. "It's a big challenge and one on
which the commission's work will be judged," she said.
The newfound cooperation came as welcome news to IRV backers.
"I'm cautiously optimistic, but given the track record on this
issue, actions will have to speak louder than words," says Steven
Hill, a senior analyst with the Center for Voting and Democracy and
a nationally recognized expert on instant runoff voting. Hill was
campaign manager for the 2002 voter initiative in which San
Francisco became the first major political entity in the United
States to adopt IRV.
Still, contentious questions remain, including whether elections
officials will choose to modify the city's current optical scanner
voting equipment in a way that meets the state's approval for
instant runoff voting, or try to introduce new touch-screen voting
machines in time for next fall's election. For the moment, the
Elections Department appears to be hedging its bets, pushing forward
on both fronts. While still ostensibly working with ES&S to get
the optical scanners modified, Arntz, the elections chief, has put
out a request for bids for a new touch-screen system.
Approved by 55 percent of the electorate, instant runoff voting
was supposed to change the game for the city's political
establishment, as embodied by outgoing Mayor Willie Brown and his
anointed would-be successor, Newsom. By making a voter's second and
third ballot choices count for something, IRV, also known as ranked
choice voting, does away with runoff elections. Such elections are
often marked by low voter turnout and, according to conventional
wisdom, are notorious for the ease with which powerful interests are
able to influence the outcome by spending lots of money.
Had it been ready this year, IRV was being touted as giving the
city's hopelessly divided progressives a shot at fielding a mayoral
candidate who could compete better against front-runner Newsom, the
well-financed darling of downtown business interests.
But in the 20 months since IRV's passage, the city's supposedly
reformist Elections Commission and the Elections Department, under
new director Arntz, have dragged their feet, unable or, as critics
insist, unwilling to implement instant runoff voting. A Superior
Court judge in August chastised elections officials for failing to
put IRV in place, but ruled against a voter education group's demand
that city officials be forced to use it in November even if they had
to count ballots by hand. Judge James Warren ruled that to require
them to do so at such a late date might jeopardize the election.
The secretary of state's role was thrust to the forefront in July
after a panel of eight of his underlings gave the appearance of
having already made up its mind in rejecting an alternative plan to
count votes by hand, if necessary, should ES&S's modifications
of the optical scanners not be ready in time. Since then, ES&S,
the Elections Department, and the secretary of state have wrangled
over whether the company's equipment should have been certified in
time for the general election.
Angrily denouncing accusations of political meddling on his part
as "unmitigated bullshit," Shelley dropped a bombshell shortly after
his panel reached its decision during an interview with the
Chronicle's editorial board, saying that he had been lobbied
by members of the Elections Commission not to advance IRV's
certification. Commissioners individually denied ever making such a
suggestion. Pressed to name names, Shelley declined through a
spokesman and has refused to revisit the subject.
For the time being at least, each of the formerly feuding parties
seems intent on making nice.
Joe Taggard, the ES&S representative, has been sharply
critical of the secretary of state's office, accusing staffers of
changing the rules for certification as they went along. But you
would never know that based on a note he sent to Shelley after the
election, a copy of which was obtained by SF Weekly. "We have
never indicated that the Secretary of State's Office was an obstacle
or presented barriers to the certification process," Taggard wrote.
"We have always found your staff to be helpful, cooperative and