Blowing It

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

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, then­Secretary 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.

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