Blowing It

How San Francisco elections officials dropped the ball on instant runoff voting

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.

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