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The Real Story: Seventeen Months of Fumbling and Bumbling by the SF Department of Elections and Elections Commission

Timlines, actions, inaction and poor decisions related to IRV implementation

Background: The Department of Elections, under its Director John Arntz, has made a series of poor decisions throughout the 17 months since instant runoff voting was passed on March 5, 2002. The Elections Commission, which was created little more than a month before the passage of instant runoff voting, has sat by ineffectually while their director has fumbled the ball.

Director John Arntz, who has been the director since the firing on April 22, 2002 of previous director Tammy Haygood, first began working at the Department of Elections in 1999 as a desk clerk, behind the counter answering phones and giving forms to the public. Previously he had ZERO election experience, and ZERO administrative or supervisorial experience. His previous employ had been writing product descriptions for a seafood company. The seven members of the Elections Commission also had very little election experience, prior to their current tenure. While one certainly can appreciate the way Director Arntz has climbed the internal ladder at the Department of Elections, his election experience is not deep, and the Commissionĺ─˘s is even less.

To make matters worse, neither the Director nor the Commission has sought expertise or counsel of known experts in the field about how to implement instant runoff voting, just as it has failed to involve the public in many key decisions about elections, despite the clear lessons from the 2000 presidential elections about the value of greater transparency in election administration. Consequently, San Francisco has been treated to 17 months of fumbling and bumbling by the governmental agencies charged with fulfilling the will of the voters and implementing the law. This view was confirmed by Judge James Warren, who presided over the lawsuit filed against the City, and who characterized the Departmentĺ─˘s efforts as ĺ─˙fumblingĺ─¨ and ĺ─˙at best, bumpy and haphazard.ĺ─¨

Below is a 17-month timeline of poor decisions and failures related to implementation of instant runoff voting, compiled from various letters and meeting notes. What follows is a remarkable record of the failure to heed the will of the voters.

Before going through the detailed chronology, here are two particularly poor decisions that directly threatened the success of IRV implementation:

October 7
Elections Director John Arntz goes against advice from his vendor, members of the Elections Commission, and staff from the Center for Voting and Democracy, and makes a decision to have ES&S upgrade the Optech Eagles (precinct-based scanner) for counting IRV ballots, rather than using the Optech IV-C (centralized scanner) or touch screens. Arntz rejects central scan solution because it requires transporting and handling ballots, rejects touch screen because he claims there is a lack of time and money. Yet in March he will create a ĺ─˙partial hand countĺ─¨ method that requires extensive transport and handling of ballots. And other counties implement their touch screen systems in a matter of a few months. This decision made the conversion of voting equipment far more difficult than it needed to be.

March, 2003
Dept of Elections submits its own application for its own designed procedure for counting IRV ballots, called a ĺ─˙partial hand count,ĺ─¨ to Secretary of State. This is meant as a backup plan, but it is untried and untested. CVD staff Steven Hill contacts John Arntz and tells him his method has problems. Hill tells Arntz that if heĺ─˘s going to design a ĺ─˙backup planĺ─¨ that utilizes a manual tally, better to model it after the kind that has been used successfully for decades in Australia, Britain, and Ireland, utilizing paper ballots, a pure hand count, and no voting equipment. Arntz ignores this advice, he plunges forward with the flawed ĺ─˙Arntz method.ĺ─¨ Says Hill, ĺ─˙John Arntz reinvented a wheel that did not need to be reinvented, and he created a square wheel besides.ĺ─¨ The Arntz method later will be decisively rejected by the Secretary of Stateĺ─˘s office.

2002

March 5
Proposition A passes with 55% of the vote, repealing December runoff elections and adopting instant runoff voting.

March/April
Meetings occur with Elections Director Tammy Haygood and members of the new Elections Commission (EC). Haygood states that she does not have the staff to implement IRV. It quickly becomes apparent that Haygood is not going to move quickly to implement IRV by Nov. 2002, and that Elections Commissioners do not know much about elections, much less IRV. Hence, they defer to their Director.

March 27
ES&S representative Joe Taggard (the cityĺ─˘s voting equipment vendor) writes a letter to the Elections Commission, asking for guidelines regarding certain issues related to IRV implementation.

April 3
At the request of EC President Tom Schulz, Center for Voting and Democracy staff draft a letter responding to ES&S/Joe Taggard. But the EC does not mail out the letter until May 10.

April 22
Elections Commission fires its Elections Director Tammy Haygood. John Arntz, with little elections experience, is plucked to be acting director.

May 10
New EC President Michael Mendelson finally mails out April 3 letter responding to Taggard/ES&S. Another letter also mailed to SoS Elections Chief John Mott-Smith.

May 29
Letter from ES&Sĺ─˘ Joe Taggard to the Elections Commission recommends one of two possibilities for implementing IRV in San Francisco: 1) utilizing existing equipment by counting the IRV ballots in a central location (not in the precincts) on the Optech IV-C high-speed scanners (not on the Optech Eagles), or 2) count IRV ballots in the precincts on ES&S touch screen equipment. Both of these technologies are more readily adaptable to IRV than precinct-based Optech Eagles.

June 5
Meeting of ad hoc task force for IRV implementation composed of Joe Taggard (ES&S), Michael Mendelson (Elections Commission), Brenda Stowers (Elections Commission), Steven Hill and Caleb Kleppner (Center for Voting and Democracy), Deputy City Attorney Julie Moll, and a few others to establish overall policy and guidelines.

June 10
Meeting with Michael Mendelson and representatives from Diebold (another voting equipment vendor). Diebold expresses interest and ability to implement IRV (they are the vendor that does the ranked ballot election in Cambridge, MA).

June 10
ES&S representative Joe Taggard e-mails a memo to Deputy City Attorney Julie Moll with a comparison chart that clearly demonstrates that touch screen voting equipment is the easiest and a relatively inexpensive method for running an IRV election due to availability of Prop 41 money for upgrading voting systems.

June 11
Meeting of the ad hoc task force for IRV implementation.

July 1
Acting Director John Arntz writes to Mayor Willie Brown asserting that he will exercise the charter-permitted option of not running an IRV election in November 2002. He states ĺ─˙Although the Department of Elections will introduce IRV in 2003, the Department will not delay its responsibility to plan for IRV.ĺ─¨

July 9
ES&S presents its proposal for using Touch screens to implement IRV at meeting of ad hoc task force for IRV implementation.

July 19
Second meeting with vendor Diebold representatives in which they present their IRV solution. Diebold again expresses interest and ability to implement IRV.

August 26
ES&S presentation on ballot layout, IRV algorithm, and other issues.

September 4
Letter from ES&Sĺ─˘ Joe Taggard once again outlines the difficulties of upgrading the Optech Eagles for the purposes of counting IRV ballots, and urges Director Arntz to go with other available options such as using touch screens.

September
Michael Mendelson requests that Center for Voting and Democracy staff draw up implementation policies. Over the next month, CVDĺ─˘s Caleb Kleppner drafts memos related to ballot design, interpreting ballots, overall policy details (how to interpret skipped rankings, release of results, etc.), dealing with write-in votes, Logic and Accuracy testing, and more. Those memos mostly end up being ignored.

October 7
Meeting of Brenda Stowers, Julie Moll, John Arntz, Caleb Kleppner, and Steven Hill. Elections Director John Arntz makes decision to have ES&S upgrade the Eagles, rather than upgrade the Optech IV-C or use touchscreens. Arntz instructs Julie Moll to tell vendor to upgrade the Eagles and not to use a central scan or touch screen solution. Arntz rejects central scan solution because it requires transporting and handling of ballots, rejects touch screens because of lack of time and money (yet in March he will create a ĺ─˙partial hand countĺ─¨ method that requires extensive transport and handling of ballots. And other counties implement their touch screen systems in a matter of a few months, particularly with millions of dollars available from Prop 41 to pay for this). This ends up being a crucial decision that endangers the success of the IRV project.

October 15
Deputy City Attorney Julie Moll says a letter to ES&S has been mailed, asking ES&S if they can and will implement IRV on the Eagles. Otherwise, the City will have to seek another vendor.

October 16
Meeting with President of EC, Michael Mendelson.

Nov. 29
ES&Sĺ─˘ Joe Taggard responds to letter of October 15, saying ES&S is willing to upgrade the precinct-based scanners known as Optech Eagles, but reiterates once again that touch screens or centralized scanners (Optech IV-C) is a better way to count IRV ballots. Nevertheless, Director Arntz opts for the difficult course of upgrading the precinct-based scanners, the Optech Eagles, which ES&S says will cost $1.5 million. Arntzĺ─˘s decision made the conversion of voting equipment far more difficult than it needed to be.

2003

January 1
The original date for signing a contract for upgrading the Eagles comes and goes.

January 10
ES&S delivers its proposal for upgrading the Eagles with $1.5 million price tag

January 14
EC President Michael Mendelson tells Caleb Kleppner that contract between the City and ES&S will be signed in 10-14 days

January 21
first contract negotiating session

February 1
EC President Michael Mendelson says contract will be signed in 10 to 14 days

February 13
EC President Michael Mendelson says again that the contract will be signed in 10 to 14 days

February 19
EC President Michael Mendelson says once again that contract will be signed in 10 to 14 days. When Steve Hill reminds Mendelson that he said this nearly three weeks ago, Mendelson slams down the phone on Hill and refuses to speak to Hill again until April 2 at the Elections Commission meeting.

February
The Department of Elections begins thinking about coming up with a ĺ─˙backup planĺ─¨ in case for some reason the contract negotiations with ES&S donĺ─˘t work out or take too long.

February 19
Deputy City Attorney Julie Moll issues memo to John Arntz, stating that whether or not the department may ĺ─˙adopt its own rules for evaluation, testing and approval of a ranked-choice voting systemĺ─¨ without approval from the Secretary of State is a legal gray area. Her memo states, ĺ─˙The California Constitution provides that charter cities such as San Francisco may govern their municipal affairs, including the manner and method of electing local officeholders. Cal. Const., Art. XI, Č▀ 5. When a charter city adopts a law governing municipal elections, and that law poses a genuine conflict with State law, the local law prevails unless the State law advances a matter of statewide concernĺ─ÂIt is also possible that a court would conclude that all matters relating to the manner and operation of a charter cityĺ─˘s voting system are municipal affairs.ĺ─¨

March 4
Joe Taggard from ES&S says the contract will be signed in two weeks

March 5
At the Elections Commission meeting, President Michael Mendelson and Director John Arntz say the contract will be signed within two weeks.

March 14
Director John Arntz submits his own application for his designed procedure for counting IRV ballots, called a ĺ─˙partial hand count,ĺ─¨ to Secretary of State. This is meant as a backup plan, but it is untried and untested.

March 19
CVD staff Steven Hill tells John Arntz at Elections Commission meeting that his untried and untested ĺ─˙Arntz methodĺ─¨ has problems. Hill tells Arntz that if heĺ─˘s going to design a ĺ─˙backup planĺ─¨ that utilizes a manual tally, better to model it after the kind that has been used successfully for decades in Australia, Britain, and Ireland, utilizing paper ballots, a pure hand count, and no voting equipment. Hill tells Arntz this several times over the next two months, but Arntz ignores this advice. He plunges forward with the flawed ĺ─˙Arntz method.ĺ─¨ This ends up being the second crucial decision that endangers the success of the IRV project.

March 19
The Elections Commission says the contract will be signed next week.

March 26
Joe Taggard from ES&S says the contract will be signed in early April, with application for certification being made in June or July.

March 27
Secretary of State responds to March 14 application by the Department of Elections and requests additional info and money deposit.

March 31
City Attorney Dennis Herrera says signing the contract next week ĺ─˙is realistic.ĺ─¨

April 1
Joe Taggard (from ES&S) says itĺ─˘s likely the contract will be signed April 10.

April 2
Elections Department representative Jennifer Novak says ĺ─˙we will probably sign next week;ĺ─¨ Taggard says by the end of the month.

Apr 10
John Arntz sends Public Education Plan for IRV to Supervisor Sandoval. Arntz does not release it publicly or seek community input.

Apr 18
DOE responds to March 27 letter from Secretary of State and submits full application

April 30
Taggard, Arntz, Herrera all indicate the contract will be signed ĺ─˙next week.ĺ─¨

April/May
First the DOE cancels SoS hand count demo, then SoS cancels next meeting

May 16
Memo from John Mott-Smith requesting answers from Department of Elections to specific questions about election administration.

May 15
Arntz finally releases the Public Education Plan to the public. The Plan has a price tag of $2.9 million, a huge sum that everyone knows is ĺ─˙dead on arrivalĺ─¨ at the Board of Supervisors, particularly given the budget deficit. There is much speculation that perhaps that is Arntzĺ─˘s intention.

May 23
Arntz responds to Mott-Smithĺ─˘s May 16 memo

June 2
ES&S delivers application to Secretary of State; Secretary of State says application in ĺ─˙incomplete.ĺ─¨

June 4
As expected, and with the support of IRV advocates, the Finance Committee of the Board of Supervisors slashes the Public Education Plan from $2.9 million to $750,000.

June 5
Secretary of State Kevin Shelley sends a sternly-worded letter to the Department of Elections, saying ĺ─˙obviously this process would be much further along had you not waited over one year to submit your application for certification. Your delay is particularly baffling given the fact that my office began advising you of the need to certify your new system just days after the March 2002 election, and has continued to remind you of this requirement over the past year.ĺ─¨

June 10
John Arntz demonstrates the ĺ─˙Arntz methodĺ─¨ for Secretary of State.

June 17
Board of Supervisors approves $1.6 million for ES&S contract to upgrade voting equipment, and $750,000 for Public Education Plan.

June 18
Arntz tells Elections Commission they are preparing December runoff as backup plan in case nothing gets certified by the Secretary of State.

June 19
Short response by John Arntz to Secretary of Stateĺ─˘s June 5 letter. Arntz declines opportunity to respond to direct queries made by Secretary of State Shelley regarding ĺ─˙constitutional, statutory, and procedural defects in the manual count IRV system proposed in your application.ĺ─¨

June 30
CONTRACT BETWEEN ES&S AND CITY FINALLY IS SIGNED -- nearly six months after the contract was supposed to have been signed on January 1, 2003.

July 14
City attorney Dennis Herrera issues a public opinion about IRV which partly contradicts the confidential memo from his office dated February 19 (see above).

July 28
The ĺ─˙Arntz methodĺ─¨ for a manual IRV tally is denied certification by the Secretary of Stateĺ─˘s Voting Systems Panel. Mr. Arntz has difficulty answering questions from the panel about his own method, including ones as simple as ĺ─˙how do you resolve ties?ĺ─¨

August 5
Director John Arntz, without authorization from the Elections Commission, announces to the Finance Committee and then San Francisco media that IRV is dead for this year.

August 6
The Elections Commission declines to stop its director from killing IRV, or from planning a December runoff, despite a December runoff being a violation of the charter as well as state law.

August 11
A lawsuit is filed against the Department of Elections, Elections Commission, and Director John Arntz for failing to implement the law and comply with the will of the voters to use instant runoff voting.

Summary of bad decisions and indecisions

The Department took no concrete steps to determine definitively a method of implementation from the passage of Prop A on March 5, 2002 until October 7, 2002. But even then, the first decision about implementation included several mistakes.

First, Director Arntz decided to rule out the use of touch screens, even though touch screens are easiest for the voter and make implementation of instant runoff voting a simpler task. Instead, he decided to upgrade the Optech Eagles. He also ruled out the use of central scanning on the Optech IV-C (which would have been the least expensive solution, and applicable even after the city moves to touch screens, since the IV-C is used to count absentee and provisional ballots). Arntz rejected the ĺ─˙central scanĺ─¨ solution because he did not want to have to transport ballots on Election Night from the precincts to a central counting location.

Yet when Director Arntz began preparing a backup solution in February ĺ─ý his ĺ─˙partial hand countĺ─¨ ĺ─ý this approach involved not only moving ballots on Election Night but handling them repeatedly. Even in drafting a backup plan, Director Arntz failed to consider more workable solutions than his ĺ─˙Arntz method.ĺ─¨ More workable solutions would have included a reconsideration of the ĺ─˙central scan,ĺ─¨ which is not only logistically easier than a partial hand count, but costs must less money and is much much faster. He also failed to consider a pure hand count on paper ballots, as has been used for decades in places like Cambridge, MA, Australia and Britain, which also is much less expensive and faster. One vendor has estimated that the cost and time for doing a hand count of paper ballots would be two days to count all of San Franciscoĺ─˘s ballots for the November election, for a cost of approximately $225,000, which is only a tenth of the cost of the ĺ─˙Arntz methodĺ─¨ and a fraction of the cost of a second citywide election in December.

Lack of public involvement and assistance from experts

Director John Arntz also consistently excluded the public from any meaningful discussion about implementation of instant runoff voting. This should have included input about ballot design, voter education, and the method of implementation of IRV.

Director Arntz and the Elections Commission also failed to solicit input from recognized experts who could assist them with implementation, including experts from the Center for Voting and Democracy, experts in Cambridge, MA, Britain, Australia, and elsewhere.

Neither Director John Arntz nor the Elections Commission has significant election administration experience. Unfortunately, the implementation of instant runoff voting in San Francisco suffered as a result. Director Arntz made a series of poor decisions throughout the 17 months since instant runoff voting was passed on March 5, 2002, and the Elections Commission sat by ineffectually while their director fumbled the ball. The implementation of IRV was plagued not only by poor decision-making, but also by a lack of responsiveness to the community, a lack of leadership, and a lack of can-do attitude. Consequently, San Francisco has been treated to 17 months of fumbling and bumbling by the governmental agencies charged with fulfilling the will of the voters and implementing the law.

Some have claimed that, compared to his predecessor, Director Arntz has done a satisfactory job for the past couple elections and helped turn the Department around. There may be some truth to this assessment, which is a big feat considering the state of the Department when he took the reins. Nevertheless, since March 5, 2002 and particularly since the end of April when he took over the Department of Elections from his predecessor, a significant part of Director Arntzĺ─˘s job entailed developing and implementing a workable voting system to be used for instant runoff voting. On this score he has performed extremely poorly, resulting in litigation against the City of San Francisco.


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6930 Carroll Ave,  Suite 610, Takoma Park, MD 20912
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