San Francisco Bay Guardian

Critical moment for election reform Imminent Shelley decision could allow ranked-choice voting ... and spark legal challenges by city power brokers
By Steven T.
July 23, 2003

San Francisco voters will rank their top three choices of candidates for mayor, sheriff, and district attorney on November's ballot if city and state officials strive to implement this voter-approved election reform by its fall deadline. Unfortunately, that's a big if, given the powerful forces trying to kill it.

The path to instituting ranked-choice voting (also known as instant-runoff voting because it eliminates the traditional low-turnout December runoff elections) has recently become clear and seemingly easy to follow. It begins at the Secretary of State's Office in Sacramento July 28 with a hearing before the Voting Systems and Procedures Panel. That body will make a recommendation to Secretary of State Kevin Shelley, who will then decide whether to certify the system.

If Shelley approves use of the partial hand-count method of tallying ballots (the plan the city developed in case the automated counting system wasn't ready), then the San Francisco Elections Commission - which intends to hold a hearing the very next day - could immediately vote to implement the system, and the San Francisco Elections Department could order ballots and make necessary preparations for the election.

After that, if Shelley certifies the automated counting method after a hearing likely to be held at the end of August, the commission can switch to that method, which uses the same ballots as the partial hand count. The department traditionally orders fall ballots in the beginning of September.

Simple, right?

Yet the political dynamics that could stop ranked choice are treacherous, and there are many opportunities to kill it. Mayor Willie Brown and much of the Democratic Party power structure oppose implementation this year and have been putting pressure on Shelley not to certify the system.

Ranked-choice voting is widely perceived as helping progressive candidates and those without big campaign war chests by eliminating vote splitting among left-leaning candidates and eliminating the low-turnout December runoff election, which the Ethics Commission has concluded is usually corrupted by a flood of big expenditures to the campaigns or by unregulated independent groups working on behalf of favored candidates.

Even if Shelley does certify ranked-choice voting, a coalition claiming to represent the interests of minorities and represented by the high-powered law firm of Remcho, Johansen, and Purcell is all but certain to file a lawsuit to stop its implementation (see "Who's Fighting Election Reform?," 7/2/03).

City Attorney Dennis Herrera also offered opponents a chance to kill the reform July 15 when he issued a much anticipated legal opinion that said the city could use a traditional runoff election if ranked choice wasn't ready to go and that a full hand-counting of ballots would have to be certified by the secretary of state - both of which run counter to the views of reform-sponsor the Center for Voting and Democracy and its lawyer, Lowell Finley.

Yet Herrera's statement also made clear that ranked choice must happen this November if it is at all possible: "It is incumbent on the City to do everything possible within the law to have a reliable instant runoff voting system in place for the November 2003 election."

The Election Commission heard that same message from the hundreds of San Franciscans who packed a July 16 meeting on the issue. The vast majority of the dozens who spoke at the four-hour hearing strongly favored the immediate implementation of ranked-choice voting.

Most were earnest, some were eloquent, a few were angry, but Stacy Anarchy of Sex Workers for Labor and Human Rights was the funniest when she offered her organization's support. "Many of us are quite skilled with our hands, and we would be happy to help with the hand count," she said.

All of those who testified against the system said it was confusing, and many said it would disproportionately disenfranchise minorities. Linda Richardson, who ran for District 10 supervisor with financial backing from Brown, said, "The minorities are really concerned about this thing."

Yet supporters at the meeting noted that the question of whether ranked choice is confusing was answered when Measure A was approved in March 2002 and that they are deeply suspicious of those now trying to stop its implementation.

"What we got is some politics going on here that we need to get rid of in this city," said Willie Ratcliff, publisher of the Bay View newspaper, which bills itself as the "national black newspaper of the year."

Ethics Commission member Paul Melbostad, who called ranked choice "a crucial part of the effort to reduce the effects of large contributions," ridiculed the notion that it disenfranchises minorities.

He told the story of campaigning door to door in past runoff elections and encountering many minorities voters who were either unaware of the election or not willing to return to the polls to vote again in the same race. "Anyone who claims this is anti-minority has never walked a precinct in a runoff election."

Given the unprecedented turnout, many were disappointed when - midway through the public testimony - Ethics Commission president Alix Rosenthal announced that she would delay voting on setting a deadline and other ranked-choice matters until after the voting panel meeting July 28.

Although Rosenthal reiterated that "the commission and department are fully committed to implementing ranked-choice voting," she was heckled by some audience members after claiming the decision is in the state's hands now, noting, "It may be impossible for the city to implement ranked-choice voting."

The meeting also revealed news from Joe Taggard of Election Systems and Software, the city's election vendor, which has developed software to count ranked-choice ballots. Until his announcement, the commission knew only that the Secretary of State's Office had rejected the ES&S application as incomplete because a minor hardware change hadn't gotten proper federal certification - something that did not bode well for meeting the tight deadline.

In fact, commissioner Brenda Stowers thought the state's action was suspicious. "All the sudden, late in the game, we're thrown this bump, and I want to know why," she said. Commissioner Michael Mendelson added, "It doesn't seem the secretary of state understands the urgency of the situation."

But Taggard said he had just gotten word that morning that ES&S was able to hire Wyle Laboratories, which was able to fast-track the request for certification and open a testing chamber July 18. That will take a week, so by late July ES&S's state application will be complete, and the state's 30-day testing and noticing procedures should be finished in time to order ballots.

"We certainly believe we will have a system that is certified sometime in August," Taggard said at the hearing.

Yet the Elections Commission hearing also identified some potential ways ranked choice might be killed, such as the lack of confidence that elections director John Arntz has expressed in his partial hand-count plan's likelihood of meeting the 28-day deadline for counting ballots.

Commissioner Richard Shadoian, noting that Arntz's publicly expressed doubts about meeting the deadline have been cited in the Remcho law firm's arguments against certification, asked for a stronger statement of confidence but didn't get it from the beleaguered-looking director.

"The plan was made with the 28-day deadline in mind, but it could go beyond the 28 days," Arntz said. "That's a concern I have."

Yet he said that his conversations with the Secretary of State's Office yielded assurances that this issue wouldn't be enough to prevent certification, because a court could easily extend that deadline if San Francisco ran into problems with the counting.

Get involved
The Voting Systems and Procedures Panel certification hearing for counting ranked-choice votes is July 28, 1 p.m.
Secretary of State's Office, first-floor auditorium
1500 11th St., Sacramento.
Those who wish to speak at the meeting should notify Dawn Mehlhaff at (916) 657-2166 or [email protected]