The Los Angeles Times

Election officials say instant runoff ready
If Feds and state approve, system can be used in fall

By Rachel Gordon
April 26, 2004 

San Francisco elections officials, after more than a year of misfires, say they are optimistic they can enact the voter-mandated instant runoff system for electing local candidates in time for November's Board of Supervisors races.

The city still needs a final sign off from the secretary of state and federal election authorities before the system is put in place. The new voting method, championed by the city's political left wing, is intended to save the city money on costly runoffs and remove the advantage that better-funded candidates often have in those one-on-one contests.

Under instant runoff elections, voters rank their choices among a field of multiple candidates. If no candidate secures a majority in the initial vote tabulation, elections officials take into account the secondary choices of voters backing losing candidates and retabulate ballots until a winner is found.

San Francisco voters approved the change in 2002, becoming the first large city in the United States to adopt the system. The ballot measure mandated that the new voting method be in place no later than the November 2003 election for mayor, district attorney and sheriff.

But that never happened due to software problems, concerns by state and federal elections regulators and what appeared, according to advocates for the system, to be foot-dragging by the previous city elections chief. Now, however, city officials say, the necessary pieces are falling into place.

"The system has been conditionally certified," provided the computing equipment to be used passes a few more tests, city elections director John Arntz told a Board of Supervisors committee last week.

The guarded optimism is a marked change from where city elections officials were a year ago when they struggled -- and ultimately failed -- to implement instant runoffs for last fall's election.

They blamed the computer-system vendor picked to rejigger the machinery for not having the vote-tabulation software developed and certified in time for the election -- and state officials rejected a backup plan for a hand- count.

The state Voting Systems and Procedures Panel, which will recommend to Secretary of State Kevin Shelley whether he should certify the new instant runoff voting equipment for San Francisco, met April 8. Members indicated conditional approval to let the city try instant runoff voting -- as a one- time tryout -- for the November election when seven of the Board of Supervisors 11 seats will be on the ballot.

The panel said, however, that before approval is granted, the vendor must complete federal testing of the modified vote-counting equipment, create a thorough audit trail so there can be a full accounting of the votes, and develop -- with the aid of city officials -- procedures dealing with tie votes.

The nature of instant runoff voting heightens concern over the ability to document and back-check the tabulations after the fact.

Under the system, voters list in order of preference their top three picks for the contested office. If no one gets more than 50 percent of the vote, the candidate with the fewest first-place votes is dropped from contention and the second-choice candidates on those ballots are moved to the top spot. The reconfigured ballots are then recounted. That process continues until a candidate gets a majority vote.

Steven Hill of the Center for Voting and Democracy, the primary public advocate for San Francisco's adoption of instant runoff voting, said he sees no reason now why San Francisco can't move forward.

"The equipment has been fully tested. It works,'' he said.

But now a new problem has cropped up: concerns voiced by members of the disabled community, among them San Francisco Supervisor Michela Alioto-Pier, that the city should rethink its priorities when it comes to changing the voting system.

Their concern is that the new software for instant runoff voting was developed for an optical-scan system, which is not accessible to the visually impaired and can be difficult for those with hand or arm impairments to use as voters have to use a pen to mark their choices on a ballot. They want the city to instead focus on getting a touch-screen voting system -- akin to an ATM - - in place, that is more accessible.

The demand comes as the secretary of state's office is investigating problems with a touch-screen voting system manufactured by Diebold Elections Systems that four counties in California use, and whether other electronic machines are faulty, too, raising questions about the fate of touch-screen voting in the state.