San Francisco Bay Guardian

On the move: IRV election reform finally makes some moves toward the November ballot
By Steven T. Jones
June 11, 2003

After languishing in limbo for many months - and in the process, making San Francisco elections officials nervous -plans to implement instant-runoff voting for the November election have taken some significant steps forward in June.

While still racing against the clock and facing opposition from the city's political power brokers (see "The Machine Attacks IRV," 5/28/03), vendor Election Systems and Software finally submitted its plan June 2 for a computer-based voting system for state and federal approval.

That development was followed two days later by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors' Finance and Audit Committee unanimously approving a $2.3 million allocation to implement the new system. The full board is slated to take up the item June 10, after our press time, and IRV supporters are confident there are six votes to pass it, and maybe even the eight votes that would be needed to override a possible mayoral veto.

"This process has taken a great leap forward this week," said Jon Golinger of the Center for Voting and Democracy, which has pushed hard for IRV's implementation since voters approved Measure A last year, thus amending the City Charter to create elections in which voters rank their top three choices of candidates.

Sources also tell us that contract negotiations between the city and ES&S are complete and that the contract will be signed as soon as the full board approves the funding, which could be finalized June 17. Attention now turns to the Secretary of State's Office, which is reviewing both the plan for computerized counting and a fallback plan of hand counting ballots that had been submitted earlier.

"The proposals are under review, and they will need to be tested," Terri Carbaugh, assistant secretary of state for communications, told us. Those proposals could go before the office's Voting Systems Panel for approval as soon as the end of the month, but the hand-count method is being actively challenged by a coalition of San Franciscans with ties to Mayor Willie Brown. The coalition's lawyer, Karen Getman, claims the hand count will disenfranchise minority voters. She told us the group hasn't decided whether it will actively challenge the computerized IRV count as well.

The conventional wisdom around San Francisco is that supporters of mayoral candidate Gavin Newsom, including the Brown political machine, will try to stop IRV from being implemented this year because of fears it will help progressive mayoral candidates Tom Ammiano and Angela Alioto, who might otherwise split the left vote. The Center for Voting and Democracy has also vowed to sue if IRV is not implemented this year as required by Measure A.

"I know this commission is going to be sued whether we implement it or not," said Alix Rosenthal, chair of the city's Elections Commission. "The most legally defensible thing is to do whatever is possible to make sure this happens in November."