San Francisco Chronicle

No quick decision on S.F. runoff plan Judge sets hearing on issue for Aug. 20
By Rachel Gordon
August 12, 2003

A San Francisco Superior Court judge on Monday rejected a request to issue an immediate order that would force the city to start putting an instant runoff voting system in place for the Nov. 4 mayoral election.

Instead, Judge James Warren scheduled an Aug. 20 court date to take up the matter.

The Center for Voting and Democracy, the San Francisco Labor Council, the California Congress of Seniors and other proponents of instant runoff voting filed a lawsuit Monday against San Francisco elections chief John Arntz and the city's Election Commission in an attempt to make sure they don't scrap voter-approved plans for the new vote-tallying system.

It would replace the traditional runoff in which the top two vote-getters square off in early December if no candidate got at least 50 percent plus one vote in the Nov. 4 general election.

"We're asking the court to not allow them to pull the plug," said Steve Hill of the Center for Voting and Democracy. The plaintiffs had asked the judge to make a quick decision Monday.

Arntz has determined that it would be impossible for the city to implement instant runoff voting -- also known as ranked-choice voting -- for the Nov. 4 election in which races for mayor, district attorney and sheriff will be on the ballot.

With elections workers busy preparing for the Oct. 7 governor's recall election and federal and state authorities yet to give the go-ahead to the new system, Arntz said he had to pull the plug. He said there's not enough time to get the instant runoff off the ground, given deadlines for printing ballots and testing machinery, and educating poll workers and voters.

Under the new system, voters would rank their top three candidates in order of preference. If no candidate had a majority of votes, the candidate with the least support would be eliminated and the second choice on those ballots would move up to the top with those votes being instantly recounted. This would continue until one candidate had more than 50 percent of the vote.

The method has never been used in a public election in California.

Hill and other backers of the new system whose politics generally fall to the left of center say that even if the machinery and software can't be put in place in time, the city could count the votes manually.

The Secretary of State squashed Arntz's back-up plan for a partial manual count. But Hill said a company in London, Electoral Reform Services, has the experience and the willingness to do the work faster and cheaper than the scenario laid out by Arntz.

Electoral Reform Services has conducted such elections before, mainly for smaller-scale contests in England.

Arntz said he doesn't want to take a chance on the upcoming San Francisco election, telling the court that a full manual recount of ballots proposed by the London organization would lead to "confusion and error."

The city attorney, in a written response to the lawsuit, said that if the court forced the city to implement instant runoff voting, "the result would be missed deadlines, disruption of the election process and a potential train wreck on November 4."

San Francisco already has a shaky reputation when it comes to running elections and has been under scrutiny by the Secretary of State's office for past problems.

Hill said that if the city doesn't enact instant runoffs, the will of voters would be thwarted and the law would be broken. In March 2002, San Francisco voters amended the city charter to enact instant runoff voting in time for this year's fall election. As it now stands, he said, San Francisco has no legal provision to hold a traditional runoff.

Opponents of instant runoffs filed their own lawsuit on July 25 trying to block the city moving forward if the plan entails a hand count.

"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.