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
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.
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.
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."
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."
- 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]
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.
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
"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."
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
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."