San Francisco Bay Guardian

Barely alive: Only the courts can save IRV now that Arntz has declared it dead and the commission prepares to pull the trigger.
By Alex Posorske and Steven T. Jones
August 13, 2003

When city Department of Elections director John Arntz declared instant-runoff voting dead for this year, IRV opponents and the city's daily newspapers were quick to sign off on the death certificate. Anti-IRV forces on the city's Elections Commission then attempted to validate Arntz's decision during a rancorous Aug. 6 meeting, but the body deadlocked with a 3-3 vote.

While IRV - also known as ranked-choice voting - barely clings to life, there are still maneuvers taking place that could revive it for the fall ballot, as voters mandated when they approved Measure A last year. The Center for Voting and Democracy on Aug. 11 filed a lawsuit to compel IRV's implementation. San Francisco Superior Court Judge James L. Warren will hear the case Aug. 20, just hours before the Elections Commission is set to reconsider the matter.

CVD's Steven Hill said he expects the court to decide that afternoon whether to order the city to implement IRV. The lawsuit argues that Arntz had no legal basis to declare IRV dead since two vote-counting methods are still on the table: an electronic method that could be certified by the state by mid-September and the hand-counting system of a British firm that the city has not officially considered.

Hill said the firm's hand-counting system could give election results within two days, and the method would not be dependent on Secretary of State Kevin Shelley's approval since it would not be considered a "voting system" that needs state approval, although City Attorney Dennis Hererra has opined that even hand counts need state approval.

The most vocal opponents of IRV have been centrist Democrats aligned with Mayor Willie Brown and mayoral hopeful Gavin Newsom, who could benefit from a divided progressive field. That political reasoning got even stronger when progressive Sup. Matt Gonzalez jumped into the mayor's race Aug. 8.

While confident of his chances even without IRV, Gonzalez told the Bay Guardian he's bothered by foot-dragging in the Secretary of State's Office: "I don't think they've taken the steps they could to make this happen."

Joe Taggard of city elections vendor Election Systems and Software told the Bay Guardian on Aug. 6 that he had just sent the state the final elements of his company's application, but a Shelley spokesperson told us Aug. 11 (finally returning several calls just before press time), "We have not received any vendor application," which Taggard called "ridiculous."

So IRV's fate now rests with the courts and with the Elections Commission, whose Aug. 6 deadlock (with one commissioner, Robert Kenealey, who isn't considered a supporter of IRV, absent) did not qualify as a ringing endorsement of Arntz. At least two committee members were upset by the new stand of the previously neutral Arntz, and one, Richard Shadoian, lit into Arntz at the meeting, questioning whether he had the power to declare IRV dead.

"We are going to tell you what to do," Shadoian angrily said to Arnst. "I think you've gone way over your rights to do something like this."

But commission president Alix Rosenthal, who has been publicly doubtful about the wisdom of implementing IRV this year, favors letting Arntz's decision stand.

The Elections Commission meets Aug. 20, 7 p.m., City Hall, Room 400, 1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place, S.F.