Working for Change

Bureaucrats stall IRV in San Francisco: Elected and unelected officials nationwide block reform legislation
By Steven Hill and Rob Richie
September 2, 2003  

Instant runoff voting (IRV) is an exciting new reform idea in the United States. IRV allows voters to rank their candidates, 1, 2, 3, and the rankings are used to hold an "instant" runoff election if no candidate has an initial majority. Election winners are those supported by a majority, elected in a single election, and candidates from multiple perspectives can run without fear of being branded a spoiler or splitting the vote. For that reason, IRV is a clear ticket to multi-party democracy.

Well-tested in a growing number of places around the world, including national elections in Ireland and Australia, IRV also encourages coalition-building and higher voter turnout. In March 2002, IRV advocates won a stirring ballot measure victory in San Francisco, beating back opponents who spent more than $100,000 to keep the status quo.

But powerful opponents do not give up easily. On August 20, a Superior Court judge ruled that the San Francisco Department of Elections is breaking the law by failing to implement IRV for this November's elections for mayor and other offices. The judge sternly chastised the Department, characterizing its efforts to implement IRV since passage of the charter amendment as "fumbling" and "haphazard."

In a troubling turn, however, the judge gave the Department of Elections permission to postpone implementing IRV until 2004. He feared that, with time running out before the November election combined with the pressures of the statewide recall election in October, these bumbling bureaucrats could not be relied on to implement IRV fairly.

It was a classic Catch-22. Immediately following his ruling, the city's elections director then had the gall to tell reporters that he could not guarantee that IRV will be in place by the November 2004 elections, more than two and a half years after voters approved the system. Apparently no amount of time is enough for this fumbling director.

The ruling has disappointed IRV advocates, both those in the City who looked forward to its positive impact on the City's hotly contested race for mayor, and those who believe that an American model of IRV will lead to rapid adoption in a range of elections across the nation.

But beyond its impact on IRV, this year's developments point to a larger problem. What happens when unelected government bureaucrats fail, either by design or ineptitude, to implement the law? After the marches and protests of the civil rights movement that resulted in landmark legislation, the federal government forced Southern bureaucrats to uphold the law. Who will uphold the laws for democratic reform in San Francisco, or other states and cities?

In Alameda County, for example, when charter cities Berkeley and Oakland expressed interest in using IRV, the county's Director of Elections informed both cities that he would refuse to run their elections and even deny them the opportunity to use the county's voting equipment for IRV elections. In Santa Rosa, a charter commission last year recommended using another fair election method called cumulative voting for city council elections to give better representation to that community's burgeoning diversity, but the county election director informed them she would not run cumulative voting elections. These administrators are not elected, but apparently hold effective veto power over proposed reforms.

In Massachusetts, a major victory at the ballot box for public financing of elections was upended by the Speaker of the House, and even a court order was unable to prevent it. Federal bureaucrats began undermining McCain-Feingold immediately following its passage. In other states, reformers seek badly-needed changes like election day registration (EDR). But what if a state passed EDR, only to see election officials refuse to implement it? What recourse do reformers have when unelected bureaucrats, or even elected politicians, disobey the law?

They can go to court, as we did in San Francisco. But going to court is expensive -- and in this case, still did not lead the judge to order election administrators to uphold the law and do their job.

There are lessons to be learned here. For one, winning at the ballot box is only part of the battle. The movement for political reform, whether it involves clean elections or IRV, must be prepared to defend its wins in court, and to resist repeal attempts. The history of full (proportional) representation used in two dozen city councils like New York City and Cincinnati shows that the anti-reformers mounted repeal after repeal, waiting for any opportunity to roll back the reform that most challenged their political machines.

But is the national reform movement equipped -- financially and strategically -- for such a deep and unwavering commitment? Where are the movement lawyers, the movement funders, and political strategists who can assist reformers in the field when our successes are threatened? Does the movement for political reform have the strength and strategy to hold stonewalling bureaucrats' feet to the fire?

There are no easy answers to these questions. IRV is far from dead in San Francisco, as advocates are preparing a strategy to ensure IRV is implemented in November 2004. Yet this is an opportune time for reflection, as we assess how state and national reformers can keep the reforms they win even as they seek urgently needed new victories. Steven Hill and Rob Richie are with the Center for Voting and Democracy ( Hill was the campaign manager for the ballot measure which passed IRV and a leader for the effort to implement IRV.

For more information about CVD's upcoming national conference, "Claim Democracy," November 22-23 in Washington, D.C., backed by a broad range of pro-democracy groups, visit