San Francisco Bay Guardian
Critical moment for
election reform Imminent Shelley decision could allow ranked-choice
voting ... and spark legal challenges by city power brokers
By Steven T.
July 23, 2003
San Francisco voters
will rank their top three choices of candidates for mayor, sheriff,
and district attorney on November's ballot if city and state
officials strive to implement this voter-approved election reform by
its fall deadline. Unfortunately, that's a big if, given the
powerful forces trying to kill it.
The path to instituting
ranked-choice voting (also known as instant-runoff voting because it
eliminates the traditional low-turnout December runoff elections)
has recently become clear and seemingly easy to follow. It begins at
the Secretary of State's Office in Sacramento July 28 with a hearing
before the Voting Systems and Procedures Panel. That body will make
a recommendation to Secretary of State Kevin Shelley, who will then
decide whether to certify the system.
If Shelley approves use of
the partial hand-count method of tallying ballots (the plan the city
developed in case the automated counting system wasn't ready), then
the San Francisco Elections Commission - which intends to hold a
hearing the very next day - could immediately vote to implement the
system, and the San Francisco Elections Department could order
ballots and make necessary preparations for the election.
that, if Shelley certifies the automated counting method after a
hearing likely to be held at the end of August, the commission can
switch to that method, which uses the same ballots as the partial
hand count. The department traditionally orders fall ballots in the
beginning of September.
Yet the political dynamics
that could stop ranked choice are treacherous, and there are many
opportunities to kill it. Mayor Willie Brown and much of the
Democratic Party power structure oppose implementation this year and
have been putting pressure on Shelley not to certify the system.
Ranked-choice voting is widely perceived as helping progressive
candidates and those without big campaign war chests by eliminating
vote splitting among left-leaning candidates and eliminating the
low-turnout December runoff election, which the Ethics Commission
has concluded is usually corrupted by a flood of big expenditures to
the campaigns or by unregulated independent groups working on behalf
of favored candidates.
Even if Shelley does certify ranked-choice
voting, a coalition claiming to represent the interests of
minorities and represented by the high-powered law firm of Remcho,
Johansen, and Purcell is all but certain to file a lawsuit to stop
its implementation (see "Who's Fighting Election Reform?," 7/2/03).
City Attorney Dennis Herrera also offered opponents a chance to
kill the reform July 15 when he issued a much anticipated legal
opinion that said the city could use a traditional runoff election
if ranked choice wasn't ready to go and that a full hand-counting of
ballots would have to be certified by the secretary of state - both
of which run counter to the views of reform-sponsor the Center for
Voting and Democracy and its lawyer, Lowell Finley.
statement also made clear that ranked choice must happen this
November if it is at all possible: "It is incumbent on the City to
do everything possible within the law to have a reliable instant
runoff voting system in place for the November 2003 election."
Election Commission heard that same message from the hundreds of San
Franciscans who packed a July 16 meeting on the issue. The vast
majority of the dozens who spoke at the four-hour hearing strongly
favored the immediate implementation of ranked-choice voting.
were earnest, some were eloquent, a few were angry, but Stacy
Anarchy of Sex Workers for Labor and Human Rights was the funniest
when she offered her organization's support. "Many of us are quite
skilled with our hands, and we would be happy to help with the hand
count," she said.
All of those who testified against the system
said it was confusing, and many said it would disproportionately
disenfranchise minorities. Linda Richardson, who ran for District 10
supervisor with financial backing from Brown, said, "The minorities
are really concerned about this thing."
Yet supporters at the
meeting noted that the question of whether ranked choice is
confusing was answered when Measure A was approved in March 2002 and
that they are deeply suspicious of those now trying to stop its
"What we got is some politics going on here that we
need to get rid of in this city," said Willie Ratcliff, publisher of
the Bay View newspaper, which bills itself as the "national black
newspaper of the year."
Ethics Commission member Paul Melbostad,
who called ranked choice "a crucial part of the effort to reduce the
effects of large contributions," ridiculed the notion that it
He told the story of campaigning door
to door in past runoff elections and encountering many minorities
voters who were either unaware of the election or not willing to
return to the polls to vote again in the same race. "Anyone who
claims this is anti-minority has never walked a precinct in a runoff
Given the unprecedented turnout, many were disappointed
when - midway through the public testimony - Ethics Commission
president Alix Rosenthal announced that she would delay voting on
setting a deadline and other ranked-choice matters until after the
voting panel meeting July 28.
Although Rosenthal reiterated that
"the commission and department are fully committed to implementing
ranked-choice voting," she was heckled by some audience members
after claiming the decision is in the state's hands now, noting, "It
may be impossible for the city to implement ranked-choice voting."
The meeting also revealed news from Joe Taggard of Election Systems
and Software, the city's election vendor, which has developed
software to count ranked-choice ballots. Until his announcement, the
commission knew only that the Secretary of State's Office had
rejected the ES&S application as incomplete because a minor
hardware change hadn't gotten proper federal certification -
something that did not bode well for meeting the tight deadline.
fact, commissioner Brenda Stowers thought the state's action was
suspicious. "All the sudden, late in the game, we're thrown this
bump, and I want to know why," she said. Commissioner Michael
Mendelson added, "It doesn't seem the secretary of state understands
the urgency of the situation."
But Taggard said he had just gotten
word that morning that ES&S was able to hire Wyle Laboratories,
which was able to fast-track the request for certification and open
a testing chamber July 18. That will take a week, so by late July
ES&S's state application will be complete, and the state's
30-day testing and noticing procedures should be finished in time to
"We certainly believe we will have a system that is
certified sometime in August," Taggard said at the hearing.
Elections Commission hearing also identified some potential ways
ranked choice might be killed, such as the lack of confidence that
elections director John Arntz has expressed in his partial
hand-count plan's likelihood of meeting the 28-day deadline for
Commissioner Richard Shadoian, noting that
Arntz's publicly expressed doubts about meeting the deadline have
been cited in the Remcho law firm's arguments against certification,
asked for a stronger statement of confidence but didn't get it from
the beleaguered-looking director.
"The plan was made with the
28-day deadline in mind, but it could go beyond the 28 days," Arntz
said. "That's a concern I have."
Yet he said that his conversations
with the Secretary of State's Office yielded assurances that this
issue wouldn't be enough to prevent certification, because a court
could easily extend that deadline if San Francisco ran into problems
with the counting.
Systems and Procedures Panel certification hearing for counting
ranked-choice votes is July 28, 1 p.m.
Secretary of State's
Office, first-floor auditorium
1500 11th St., Sacramento.
Those who wish to speak at the meeting should notify Dawn
Mehlhaff at (916) 657-2166 or [email protected]