San Francisco Weekly

Blowing It: How San Francisco elections officials dropped the ball on instant runoff voting
By Ron Russell

In March 2002 local voters approved a system of instant runoff voting that supporters and detractors alike insisted would forever alter the way San Francisco chooses its political leaders. Proposition A was supposed to change the rules of the road for the city's political establishment, embodied by outgoing Mayor Willie Brown and his anointed would-be successor, Supervisor Gavin Newsom. By making a voter's second and third ballot choices count for something, IRV (also known as ranked choice voting) does away with runoff elections. In San Francisco, as elsewhere, such elections are often marked by low voter turnout and, according to conventional wisdom, are notorious for the ease with which powerful interests are able to influence the outcome by spending lots of money.

Approved by 55 percent of the electorate (and garnering even higher support in heavily minority precincts), IRV was touted as giving the city's hopelessly fractious progressives a shot at advancing a mayoral candidate who wouldn't just be cannon fodder for the well-financed darling of downtown business interests. Together with the passage of Proposition E in November 2001 -- which wrested control of the scandal-plagued Elections Department from the mayor and placed it under a newly created Elections Commission -- instant runoff voting promised a sea change in the city's politics.

Yet in the 18 months since the cutting-edge system became law, the ostensibly reformist commission and the Elections Department, under a new and inexperienced director, John Arntz, have dragged their feet, unable -- or, as some critics insist, unwilling -- to roll out IRV. Arntz maintains that the department has done "everything we can possibly do" to put IRV into effect. And he suggests that much of the blame lies with the company that supplies the city's voting machines, Election Systems & Software, for not making needed equipment changes in time for state officials to certify the machines for the upcoming mayor's race.

But IRV supporters remain unconvinced. And last month a Superior Court judge chastised the city's bumbling elections officials for failing to implement IRV. Judge James Warren nonetheless ruled against a voter education group's demand that city officials be forced to use instant runoff voting in November even if they had to resort to counting ballots by hand. Although acknowledging that elections officials have not complied with the law, the judge said that to force them to do so at such a late date might jeopardize the election. "It's a classic Catch-22," says Steven Hill, who served as campaign manager for Prop. A and is a senior analyst with the Maryland-based Center for Voting and Democracy, which sued the city over IRV. "The fact that [elections officials] couldn't be trusted to do in two months what they'd failed to do in a year and a half becomes the rationale for letting them off the hook in November." Hill's organization, chaired by former independent presidential candidate John B. Anderson, is a nonprofit research and advocacy group that aims to promote more democratic voting systems.

On the surface, the city's dismal failure to get IRV up and running after so long would appear to be -- at the very least -- a study in institutional ineptitude. Arntz, 38, who had been a midlevel employee at the Elections Department with no previous experience overseeing elections, knew little about instant runoff voting when he took over as acting director in April 2002 after the firing of his predecessor, Tammy Haygood. The last of a string of directors chosen under a system dominated by the mayor, Haygood had done little if anything to jump-start preparations for IRV in the six weeks between Prop. A's passage and her ouster by the commission. Facing a not-unexpected learning curve, not to mention the urgency of preparing to stage an election last November, Arntz (who wasn't named permanent director until May of this year) is widely perceived as ignoring pleas from proponents to make IRV an early priority.

But if Arntz botched the system's timely enactment, the slumbering role of the Elections Commission in failing to prod him has fueled speculation that IRV's immobilization in bureaucratic quicksand has as much to do with mayoral politics as with garden-variety bungling. In fact, many IRV backers believe the commission, presumably committed to the new voting system, conspired with forces beholden to Brown -- and who want to see Newsom elected mayor -- by dragging its feet until it was too late to deploy IRV in this November's municipal election.

Indeed, the evidence suggests political mischief is at the root of the city's failure to make IRV happen in November -- even if the mischief is a bit different than some IRV backers suppose. With an understaffed and underfunded Elections Department already relegated to the status of governmental orphan, the commission failed to pursue a veteran elections official to replace Haygood, instead placing the burden of jump-starting IRV on the shoulders of a neophyte director who didn't even know the job was his to keep during much of the past year. As a result, IRV's chances of a timely rollout appear to have been doomed from the start.

But while political forces friendly to Brown and front-runner Newsom did their utmost to torpedo IRV, their efforts probably weren't necessary. The department's attempts to implement IRV were so feeble as to be almost comical. From its humiliating failure to get a signed contract with the voting machine vendor until after the work of retrofitting machines to accommodate IRV ballots was to be finished, to its hat-in-hand (not to mention halfhearted) bid to get the state to certify an 11th-hour plan to use the new voting method, the department seemed all but programmed to fail with respect to IRV.

Even IRV opponents think something very strange has happened. "I'm not a fan of instant runoff voting, but I do think it has been deliberately stalled," says activist Barbara Meskunas, who served on the Citizens Advisory Committee on Elections, which preceded the commission's creation. "Either that or they're asking us to believe that the Elections Commission can't walk and chew gum at the same time." 


Such speculation got a perhaps unintended boost from none other than California's chief elections regulator, Secretary of State Kevin Shelley, a former San Francisco supervisor and state assemblyman who was a big booster of Prop. A during the campaign. After his office refused in July to clear the way for IRV by certifying a last-ditch plan to partially count ballots by hand if necessary, angry backers accused Shelley of bowing to political pressure to make sure instant runoff voting didn't happen in November. "That's unmitigated bullshit, and you can quote me on that," he later told a Chronicle interviewer.

The secretary of state's role was questioned after a review panel consisting of eight of his underlings gave the appearance of having already made up its mind in late July when it turned thumbs down on the hand-count alternative. For supporters, the hearing in Sacramento had all the trappings of a kangaroo court, with the reasons offered for the plan's rejection seemingly less than substantial. It didn't help that Shelley's staff waited until after 5 p.m. the Friday before the Monday hearing to release its negative recommendations, making it all but impossible for IRV supporters to respond, even as the state findings served as fodder for news coverage over the weekend.

In a meeting with the Chronicle's editorial board a few days after the hearing, Shelley dropped a bombshell. "I got calls from members of the elections commission saying, 'We don't want this to happen,'" he was quoted as saying. And in a sarcastic swipe at commissioners, he added,

"That sounds like a group of people really committed to the will of the people." Shelley has since refused to revisit the subject. After not responding to numerous requests for an interview for more than three weeks, he did, however, authorize his spokesman, Doug Stone, to tell SF Weekly that he stands by his remarks to the Chronicle.

Each of six elections commissioners interviewed for this article denied contacting Shelley. The seventh, Robert Kenealey, did not respond to interview requests. But it is by no means the first time questions have arisen about the panel's collective commitment to IRV. At a heavily attended City Hall meeting last month, commission President Alix Rosenthal sat stone-faced as IRV advocate Greg Kamin described her as having "scarcely concealed her disdain for IRV personally" while addressing a Democratic group several weeks earlier.

Similarly, Caleb Kleppner of the Center for Voting and Democracy tells SF Weekly that commission Vice President Michael Mendelson expressed misgivings about instant runoff voting during a personal conversation last year, something Mendelson denies. Until a recent squabble in which Mendelson sought to have Rosenthal removed as president, the two were allies often aligned against commissioners Richard Shadoian and Tom Schulz, both vocal supporters of IRV.

Adding to the intrigue is that even as elections officials fumbled IRV's implementation, forces linked to Brown and Newsom (who both opposed Prop. A) worked to sink the new system before the Nov. 4 election to choose a mayor, district attorney, and sheriff. The most detailed evidence of their efforts is a 106-page legal challenge to the Elections Department's ability to hand-count ballots during the city's too-little-too-late bid to get Shelley to certify IRV in time for November.

The document was prepared by two heavy-hitting law firms with long ties to Brown and the downtown business establishment -- Remcho, Johansen & Purcell in San Leandro, and Pillsbury Winthrop, which has offices in San Francisco and New York and employs more than 800 lawyers. The Remcho firm has represented the state Legislature in redistricting matters and has had extensive dealings with Brown, a former state Assembly speaker, and numerous other local Democratic figures. When the firm's founder, Joe Remcho, died in a helicopter crash in January, Brown was a pallbearer at his funeral.

Pillsbury Winthrop is a financial contributor to the Committee on Jobs, which represents powerful downtown interests and whose co-chair, financier Warren Hellman, is a key Newsom supporter. Hellman co-founded S.F. SOS, the group that last year worked with Newsom to advance his "Care Not Cash" homeless initiative.

The firms' clients in the anti-IRV drive included Mary Jung, a member of the San Francisco County Democratic Central Committee who has supported both Brown and Newsom, and David Lee, who heads the Chinese American Voter Education Committee. Newsom's campaign donated $5,000 to the nonpartisan CAVEC last year. In July, CAVEC representatives urged Shelley to reject IRV, arguing that not enough could be done to educate voters before November and that minority voters therefore would be confused and effectively disenfranchised.

It's an argument also advanced by two other clients of the law firms. One is a local chapter of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, the national black trade unionist organization. The other, which has taken a lead role in pressing the case against IRV before the Elections Commission, is the California Voting Rights Foundation. But IRV backers claim the foundation is little more than a front for the Remcho law firm. And state records appear to bear them out. Those documents reveal that attorney Tom Willis, a Remcho partner, is the foundation's principal officer. Not only that, but the foundation's address and phone number match those of the law firm's San Leandro office.


The Elections Commission was supposed to be the cure to years of perceived mayoral meddling in the Elections Department. Although snafus and alleged misconduct have long been part and parcel of the city's checkered elections history (former Secretary of State March Fong Eu proclaimed the department the state's "worst" as far back as 1971), there has scarcely been anything to match the turnover at the top since Brown became mayor. Before Arntz, the beleaguered department had gone through five directors in as many years, none of whom had ever run an elections operation, prompting skeptics to question whether the department was deliberately programmed for ineptitude.

For years, the secretary of state's office has kept an eye on San Francisco at election time as if it were a banana republic needing a U.N. observer team. Yet confusion, delay, and foul-ups have remained the order of the day.

There was the Elections Department's unusual -- not to mention illegal -- decision to open the polls in four housing projects on the weekend before the vote on the 49ers stadium in 1997, a move that opponents decried as a blatant attempt by Brown, who supported the measure, to harvest votes from stadium-friendly neighborhoods.

That same year, the city's voter rolls were discovered to be larded with the names of 1,800 dead people. A year earlier, the Elections Department mistakenly sent double sets of absentee ballots to 1,000 voters, giving them the chance to vote twice. After the November 2000 election, in which a public power measure narrowly lost, then‚Secretary of State Bill Jones deemed the department's bungling of the vote count the most serious he had ever seen.

Prop. E promised to shake things up. It stripped control of the department from the city administrator, a mayoral appointee, and placed it in the hands of a commission that the measure's supporters saw as a means to depoliticize the department. The initiative severely limited the mayor's influence, giving him just one appointment to the seven-member commission, the same as the Board of Supervisors, the district attorney, the city attorney, the public defender, the treasurer, and the school board. The measure endowed the commission with both policy-making and oversight authority, including the ability to hire and fire the department director.

Within three months of the panel's inaugural meeting in January 2002, Haygood -- the last director chosen under Brown's influence -- was toast. A lawyer and engineer by training, she had served Brown previously on a little-noticed commission to oversee new construction in Golden Gate Park. Before being picked for the thankless job of running city elections, her immediate claim to fame was that she had supervised quality control for a company that makes diaper dispensers. Her qualifications for the elections job seemed difficult to pinpoint. Even the mayor's top aide, Bill Lee, was quoted as saying that what sold him on Haygood was the detail with which she could describe how a diaper is made.

The irony is that, for the most part, Haygood was credited with running a clean election in November 2001, her first and last before being dumped. But all did not go well. Suspicions were aroused when ballots were inexplicably moved from City Hall to nearby Bill Graham Civic Auditorium late on election night. Haygood's explanation was that there had been an anthrax scare. If so, critics thought it odd that no one working near the ballots wore gloves.

The most damaging news, however, came weeks after the election, when plastic lids for old ballot boxes floated ashore in San Francisco Bay. The incident, which garnered widespread headlines, quickly came to symbolize the woes of the bedeviled Elections Department. But it was really a nonevent. The department had ceased using the boxes to store ballots, but kept them as containers for pens, notebooks, and other small office supplies. After hosing the boxes down, a city worker had forgotten to bring them in off a pier before going home for Thanksgiving, and over the holiday weekend about two dozen lids blew into the bay.

The biggest knock on Haygood from her newly designated bosses at the commission was that she had overspent the department's budget by more than $5 million without keeping them in the loop, something she vehemently denied. Whether that was the reason for her being canned or the new commission merely wanted to flex its muscle at the mayor's expense may never be known. The commission didn't state a reason for Haygood's dismissal. As the courts later affirmed during Haygood's futile yearlong struggle to win her job back (while being paid her $125,000 salary), it wasn't obliged to, since the director had not yet served a year in the job and was still a probationary employee.

The Haygood affair cemented the animosity between Brown and the commission, with serious repercussions for IRV. Having jettisoned the mayor's elections director, the commission needed to ramp up preparations for the November 2002 election and also faced the task of jump-starting plans for a voting system that no one in the department, least of all the commissioners, knew much about. Still, Prop. A appeared to have cut them plenty of slack. Although it encouraged a good-faith effort to install the new voting system in time for last November's election, the measure gave elections officials 20 months -- until the November 2003 election -- to get a new IRV system up and running.

Whether by blunder or design, the elections panel was not up to the task. With help from Brown, Haygood, who is black, kept the commission tied in knots for months, claiming her dismissal was racially motivated and going to court to try to overturn it. The mayor demanded (to no avail) the release of tapes and documents from the closed-door session at which the panel had voted to dismiss her. As commission President Rosenthal acknowledges, "It took us about a year to get our sea legs."

After last November's election, presided over by Arntz, Brown fumed that voters were turned away from polling places because not enough ballots were available. The mayor, who viewed the commission's creation as part of a power play by the progressive majority of the Board of Supervisors, later ratcheted up his criticism, referring to commissioners as "nitwits." After his first commission appointee abruptly resigned in June 2002, Brown didn't bother to pick a replacement until May of this year, finally naming the Rev. Arnold Townsend to the post.

The appointment came barely a month after Brown is alleged to have told a private breakfast gathering that if IRV were put in place it could result in a candidate such as Supervisor Tom Ammiano being elected mayor. The affable Townsend doesn't hide his misgivings about IRV, although he insists that he and the mayor have never talked about it. But neither is he shy about where his loyalties lie. "I had [an IRV backer] say to me, 'The mayor just put you on [the commission] to push his agenda,'" he says. "And my response to that is, 'Well, he damn sure didn't put me on here to push yours.'"


Under IRV, voters rank their top three candidates in order of preference. If no candidate gets a majority of votes, the one with the least support is eliminated and the No. 2 choices from his or her ballots are credited to the respective candidates and the totals recounted. The process is repeated until one candidate has more than 50 percent of the vote. IRV thus functions like a rapid series of runoff elections in which one candidate is eliminated each step of the way, but without the need for an actual -- and costly -- runoff election.

Supporters claim that IRV also eliminates "spoiler" candidates. The presumption is that in multiple-candidate races, like-minded constituencies, such as progressives, will divide their votes among like-minded candidates, allowing a candidate with less overall support but a solid plurality to prevail. The real political ramifications, however, are largely unproven in the United States. Although IRV has been used for years in Australia and parts of Europe, in this country it has been confined mostly to corporate and student elections. UC Berkeley, Stanford, and Caltech are among about two dozen colleges nationwide that use IRV to some extent to elect student officers. Last year, Utah Republicans used it to choose congressional nominees at the party's state convention, and pro-IRV legislation is pending in about 20 other states. San Francisco is the nation's largest political entity to adopt the system.

Whether IRV would have given one of the progressive mayoral candidates a better shot at defeating front-runner Newsom this fall or whether political consultants might simply have come up with new strategies to blunt the system won't ever be known. Regardless, both supporters and detractors appear to accept the assumptions about IRV's ability to level the playing field. Against that backdrop, the snail's pace of its ill-fated deployment -- and the new Elections Commission's role in that -- was almost guaranteed to arouse political suspicions. "IRV is the canary in the mine shaft that points to a much deeper problem," says Hill of the Center for Voting and Democracy. "And that's that the Elections Commission is asleep at the wheel."

He and others began to agitate for the commission to gear up for IRV within days of the March 2002 vote. But as interviews, commission minutes, and internal documents reveal, the effort was tortured from the start. After keeping advocates at arm's length for weeks, the commission didn't start talking in earnest about IRV until May of last year. It wasn't until last September that the panel finally turned to Hill and Kleppner, both nationally recognized IRV experts, to help draw up an implementation plan.

By then it was too late for IRV to happen last November. Although disappointed, advocates -- including grass-roots volunteers from the Prop. A campaign, many of them affiliated with the Green Party and the city's Democratic clubs -- took it in stride. After all, Arntz, who by then had been named provisional director, sounded confident that instant runoff voting was on track for this November.

But Arntz, with the commission's tacit approval, had already made a crucial decision that would hugely affect IRV's chances of being put in place in time to meet the law's November 2003 deadline.

The elections chief wanted to upgrade more than 600 Optech Eagles, the photocopier-size optical scanners now used to count paper ballots at the city's precincts, to accommodate IRV. To do so, additional hardware needed to be installed to increase the machines' memory, and new software devised to make the Eagles compatible with the new voting system.

But representatives of Election Systems & Software, the city's voting machine vendor, concluded that it made more sense to buy new touch-screen voting machines than to retrofit all the Eagles. With a vested interest in seeing the transition to IRV go smoothly, ES&S offered to cut the city a deal if it converted to touch screens. Although the price tag could exceed $10 million, state funds had been set aside to help with the purchase, and city officials had expressed their intention to adopt the more technologically advanced touch-screen system, now in use by half a dozen California counties.

ES&S Regional Sales Vice President Joe Taggard declined to talk about the matter for the record. But sources familiar with the negotiations say the company argued that the cost of upgrading the Eagles would be money badly spent if the city later replaced them with touch screens. Yet Arntz stuck with the Eagles, concluding that on top of gearing up for IRV, a switch to touch screens would be too much, too soon, for his chronically understaffed department to absorb, these sources say.

Headquartered in the City Hall basement, the Elections Department has long been a stepchild of the municipal bureaucracy. It has only about a dozen full-time permanent employees. About a dozen others, while assigned full time to the department, actually are on long-term loan from other city departments. Thus, there is little job security and little continuity from one election cycle to the next. "It's a thankless situation," says an ex-staffer who asked not to be identified. "You never know from one year to the next, or one month to the next, whether they're going to yank you and put you someplace else, or whether you're going to be out of a job." As elections draw close, the department depends on roughly 200 seasonal employees and, at election time, an even larger number of volunteers.

By last October, with ES&S still trying to sell city officials on touch screens, Arntz, again with the commission's backing, gave the vendor an ultimatum: Either come up with a way of upgrading the Eagles, or the city would put the project out to bid. The vendor reluctantly agreed. But it was the beginning of a fiasco.

Sources familiar with the matter say the vendor suggested that it could do the upgrade for $100,000 if, instead of modifying each of the hundreds of precinct machines, it installed new software for two large-capacity vote-counting computers at City Hall. The plan would have involved physically transferring uncounted ballots from throughout San Francisco to City Hall after the polls closed, something that Arntz -- mindful of past problems -- preferred not to do.

Both sides agreed to sign an upgrade contract by Jan. 1. But with Arntz and the department up to their elbows in conducting an election in the fall, little got done. It wasn't until January that contract talks even began. By then, ES&S had announced it would cost $1.6 million to upgrade all the precinct machines. Yet inexplicably, the negotiations languished.

Michael Mendelson, who was then commission president, spent February through April fending off pleas from IRV supporters to finish dealing with the vendor so the city would have something to submit to the state to be certified. Steven Hill says that for two months he was told by one or another commissioner that the contract "would be ready any day now. They kept saying, 'Next week, next week.' But we've never gotten a straight answer as to what the holdup was."

The department came to terms with ES&S only days before the pivotal July hearing at which the secretary of state's office rejected the city's slapped-together plan to partially count ballots by hand in the event the company couldn't complete the upgrade in time. Even so, the city didn't have a signed contract until August -- well past when the work was to have been finished. ES&S had continued to work on the upgrade without a contract, and its representatives insisted there would be no impediment to putting IRV in place in November using the Optech Eagles.

Still, during the months that contract negotiations slowed to a crawl, work had not progressed sufficiently to meet the secretary of state's guidelines for advance testing. Everybody -- the commission, Arntz, ES&S, and Shelley -- blamed everybody else. But for angry IRV supporters, dozens of whom had vented before the Elections Commission and at Shelley's hearing, it felt like the end of a game in which the team with the upper hand had run out the clock.


From his rÈsumÈ, it is hard to imagine a more improbable big-city elections chief than John Arntz.

Not only did the Detroit native have no previous experience running elections, he had never even worked in government. He started at the Elections Department in October 1999 as a desk clerk answering phones and greeting the public. Barely 2 1/2 years later, upon Haygood's dismissal, he was running the place.

It wasn't his first unlikely career turn. In 1996, after graduating from the University of South Dakota's law school, Arntz eschewed the bar exam and returned to Alaska (where he had earned a degree in English literature at the University of Alaska) to be a carpenter. "I realized while in law school that becoming a practicing attorney is something I didn't want to do," he says.

In 1998, he moved to the Bay Area, teaching computer classes and freelancing for an online aviation magazine. He left a job writing product descriptions for a vitamin company to join the Elections Department.

By all accounts, Arntz is a quick study. "He's tireless, dedicated, and has the respect of those who work for him," says former colleague Girard Gleason, who drafted Arntz to help him supervise the printing of ballots for the March 2000 election. "There's no task he hasn't performed over there, including lowly precinct work." Neither, say admirers, is he political. In fact, by his own sheepish admission, San Francisco's top elections official has failed to vote in the last five local elections.

On a rainy primary election night in March 2002, Gleason recalls driving to a polling station in the garage of a Pacific Heights home to pick up Arntz, who was poll sitting, after the volunteer who was supposed to bring him back to City Hall failed to show. "There were two [volunteer] workers with him. The first one bailed out before the polls closed. The second one, whom I think came from a soup kitchen, also threatened to bail. So John reaches in his pocket and hands him $20 to get him to stay. That's the kind of guy he is."

But others express amazement at the degree to which the commission has followed its rookie elections chief on IRV, adding to the perception that the rollout's failure is due to more than mere bungling.

"They defer to him as if he were some veteran elections registrar," says Hill of the Center for Voting and Democracy. "You've got to remember: He's still learning the ropes and is a probationary employee."

Even Arntz's selection, conducted under the Elections Commission's auspices, appears to have fit a familiar San Francisco pattern. Touted as a national search, the process attracted only nine applicants. Of the five who made the final cut, only Arntz and two others passed a written exam.

Not a single veteran elections official was among the applicants for the job, with its advertised salary of up to $144,000 per year. (A commission source says Arntz earns about $140,000 annually.) "If the aim was to attract an experienced registrar, that's not the way San Francisco went about it," says Contra Costa County voter registrar Stephen Weir, who served on a panel of experts that helped devise questions for the exam. Weir and another experienced California registrar noted that San Francisco personnel officials failed to employ an outside headhunting firm to aggressively target talented prospective applicants. "If you want to bring in someone with a high-caliber track record -- and trust me, they are out there -- you don't wait for them to come to you," says Weir. "You go after them." Instead, he says, the city used its regular civil service testing process, as if it were hiring a low-level employee such as a clerk.


As time has ticked away for November, the commission created by voters supposedly to erase political manipulation from city elections has, besides appearing impotent, looked increasingly political in its inaction. Since Prop. A's passage, the Elections Commission has done little to advance IRV beyond passing a couple of tepid resolutions -- one in March 2002 and another in August of this year -- supporting instant runoff voting in principle.

The latter gesture, before a hearing room packed with IRV fans, was especially uninspiring, after a motion by Commissioner Shadoian that called on the panel to support putting the system in place by November failed to muster a majority. Late last year, Tom Schulz, the panel's other IRV champion, tried and failed to get a majority of commissioners to adopt even a simple mission statement that called for them to hold the Elections Department accountable for its performance. He and Shadoian complain that Mendelson and Rosenthal have thwarted their efforts to advance IRV.

"The commission is a dysfunctional family and, sadly, it appears to be that way by design," says Schulz, a retired U.S. General Accounting Office investigator appointed to the commission by the Board of Supervisors. Shadoian, the school board appointee, offers a similar view. "We seem to be a commission that doesn't know what our duties are," he says. But others see it differently.

"The department has been doing nothing but working on [IRV]," insists current commission VP Mendelson, an attorney appointed by DA Terence Hallinan. Although Prop. E gives the commission oversight and policy-setting authority, Mendelson and Rosenthal insist that the commission shouldn't inject itself into the department's day-to-day operations. It's a view that the commission majority has come to share in doing little to press for IRV. "The law does say [implementation should occur by] November 2003, but if the director of the department comes back to us and says he can't do it, then it's not for us to say he can," says Commissioner Brenda Stowers, named to the panel by city Treasurer Susan Leal.

Rosenthal, a lawyer appointed by former Public Defender Kimiko Burton, has become a lightning rod of criticism for IRV backers since her misgivings about the new voting system became publicly known. "I don't know that I can fight [the perception] no matter what I do," she says, referring to accusations her panel has stood in IRV's way. "I just have to be repeating that I'm here to support John Arntz. My feelings about IRV have never been particularly relevant."

Meanwhile, Arntz -- staring at a gubernatorial recall, a city election in November, and quite possibly a December runoff of the kind IRV was intended to eliminate -- even now doesn't sound reassuring about putting IRV into effect in time for November 2004.

"It's certainly our goal," he says. "But there are still a lot of challenges."