Blowing It

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

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.

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