Blowing It

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

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.

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