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San Francisco Bay Guardian

Voting as usual: S.F. officials won't implement election reform this year - and maybe not even next year - in defiance of the public will
By Steven T. Jones
August 27, 2003

San Francisco elections officials have illegally thwarted the will of city voters to implement an instant-runoff voting system this year, Superior Court Judge James L. Warren said during an Aug. 20 hearing, although he insisted he had no choice but to let them do it.

Citing his legal obligation to give deference to the belief of San Francisco Elections Department chief John Arntz that implementing IRV (which allows voters to rank their choices of candidates) at this point would compromise the integrity of the November election, Warren rejected a petition by the Center for Voting and Democracy to compel the city to implement IRV, using a hand counting of ballots if necessary.

The decision, coupled with the Elections Commission's unwillingness to challenge Arntz on the issue, kills election reform for the year, places the city in violation of its own charter, and will likely lead to a December runoff election in the race for mayor and possibly for district attorney. That would be the third election in just over two months' time, given the Oct. 7 gubernatorial recall election.

Even more troubling to reformers were comments Arntz made to the press after the court hearing. Asked by the Bay Guardian whether IRV will be in place by the November 2004 election, Arntz said, "I won't commit to that" because "the same issues that make ranked choice a problem now will still exist next year."

During that evening's Elections Commission meeting, reformers blasted elections officials for their lack of commitment to IRV. "[Arntz] looked at the TV cameras and said he's not sure if we can have this by next November," said Steven Hill of the Center for Voting and Democracy, which sponsored last year's Measure A and created the IRV mandate. "I personally don't know where we go at this point."

Divisions on the commission over IRV triggered an agenda item to remove Alix Rosenthal as president, citing statements that she had reportedly made to a Young Democrats Club meeting in July that seemed to indicate a bias against IRV.

Rosenthal began the meeting by apologizing for "condescending" comments she made at the commission's Aug. 6 meeting and later argued that her removal would hurt the commission at an already difficult time, pledging, "I will work to get the commission out of the newspapers."

Public testimony - almost all of it by the same people who have been hostile to IRV's implementation, most of whom have ties to machine Democrats allied with Mayor Willie Brown and mayoral hopeful Gavin Newsom - was mostly supportive of Rosenthal, but most condemned the commission as overly politicized, dysfunctional, and "a disgrace."

In the end, Rosenthal kept her position after a 5 to 2 vote, with commissioners Brenda Stowers and Michael Mendelson supporting her ouster. Later, Rosenthal told the Bay Guardian she will work to implement IRV by next year, saying, "The department knows it will be held accountable and that it must take every necessary step to get [IRV] implemented."

Yet, like Arntz, she stopped short of pledging a full commitment to IRV, saying, "I'm afraid to make that prediction because there are too many variables." Among the hurdles mentioned by the pair were technical issues with the vote-counting software, making the IRV system comply with state law, and future actions by the state legislature that might help or hinder its implementation.

Hill and his group's lawyer, Lowell Finley, have argued in public and in court that such factors had little to do with the failure to implement IRV. Rather, they make the detailed case that an inexperienced Arntz and the commission waited too long after voters approved Measure A in March 2002 to start the process, made bad decisions about its implementation at several critical junctures, ultimately designed a vote-counting plan riddled with errors, and never seriously considered a proposal by Electoral Reform Services, a London-based firm with experience counting IRV ballots.

Judge Warren seemed to subscribe to Hill's version of history, even as he acknowledged that IRV is a complicated system that presents challenges in how to implement it in compliance with state election laws.

"You have been moving along, at best, in a bumpy and haphazard fashion," Warren told city officials in court. Shortly thereafter, when deputy city attorney Wayne Snodgrass attempted to dismiss the reformers' contention that the city had "bungled the process," Warren sharply cut him off by saying "the word bumbling [sic] ... comes from me."

Warren elaborated by noting that the city repeatedly missed its own deadlines, created unnecessary delays in the process, prepared a fatally flawed plan for counting ballots, and failed to pursue the ERS offer to hand count ballots within just a few days and at a cost of $2 million less than the Arntz plan that had been rejected by the state.

Snodgrass tried to blame city election vendor Election Systems and Software for IRV's failure, but Warren countered, "I don't see anything in here with you taking any action against ES&S for missing their deadline."

After the hearing Artnz defended his handling of IRV's implementation. "We've done everything we can to make this happen this fall," Artnz told reporters. "I don't feel that I'm incompetent or bumbling in any way."

But Hill told reporters that "the position the city has taken has undermined people's faith in the city and in democracy itself." The war of words continued into that evening's commission hearing, when Hill mourned the city's failure to carry out the people's will and reform democracy.

"Basically, you guys won, and we lost," Hill told the commission. "I don't know what you won, but I do know what was lost."

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