Making Nice

City and state elections officials finally strike a harmonious note in their erratic efforts to roll out IRV

After months of foot-dragging and finger-pointing, San Francisco elections officials – with a boost from California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley – at last appear ready and willing to get an instant runoff voting system up and running in time for next November's municipal election.

The cutting-edge voting system, approved by voters in March 2002, was supposed to be deployed this month in the races for mayor, district attorney, and sheriff. But blunders and accusations of political mischief have marked the city's dismal failure to get IRV online. Elections officials, the company that supplies the city's voting machines, and the secretary of state have blamed each other.

Rancor may have peaked just before the Nov. 4 election when mayoral candidate and IRV backer Matt Gonzalez, flanked by an official from Election Systems & Software, the voting-machine vendor, accused Shelley of making it impossible to get the system approved in time for this November. Gonzalez contended that Shelley had "moved the goal posts [for certifying ES&S's equipment] a number of times." Both he and the company official insisted that the voting equipment was ready to go and could have been used had the secretary of state not held things up.

Gonzalez, the Green Party candidate, is locked in a Dec. 9 runoff with Democrat and fellow Supervisor Gavin Newsom. Shelley, a former San Francisco supervisor and state assemblyman, has endorsed Newsom for mayor.

Shelley has for months denounced accusations that his office intervened to hold up IRV. And sources say that the secretary of state was infuriated by the latest charges. Whether intended or not, the brouhaha may have succeeded in giving the process a nudge. Shelley rearranged his schedule last week to meet with city Elections Department chief John Arntz and Alix Rosenthal, president of the Elections Commission. The topic: how to move IRV forward. Afterward, both Arntz and Rosenthal said that the secretary of state had pledged to take an active role in seeing that IRV becomes a reality by next November.

"He [Shelley] was very positive and left no doubt of his genuine willingness to work with us to make it happen," said Rosenthal, herself a target of criticism from IRV backers earlier this year after she publicly expressed personal misgivings about instant runoff voting. But Rosenthal told SF Weekly that she intends to do "everything possible" to help smooth the way for IRV's rollout next year, acknowledging that the Elections Commission's credibility -- and her own -- is at stake. "It's a big challenge and one on which the commission's work will be judged," she said.

The newfound cooperation came as welcome news to IRV backers. "I'm cautiously optimistic, but given the track record on this issue, actions will have to speak louder than words," says Steven Hill, a senior analyst with the Center for Voting and Democracy and a nationally recognized expert on instant runoff voting. Hill was campaign manager for the 2002 voter initiative in which San Francisco became the first major political entity in the United States to adopt IRV.

Still, contentious questions remain, including whether elections officials will choose to modify the city's current optical scanner voting equipment in a way that meets the state's approval for instant runoff voting, or try to introduce new touch-screen voting machines in time for next fall's election. For the moment, the Elections Department appears to be hedging its bets, pushing forward on both fronts. While still ostensibly working with ES&S to get the optical scanners modified, Arntz, the elections chief, has put out a request for bids for a new touch-screen system.

Approved by 55 percent of the electorate, instant runoff voting was supposed to change the game for the city's political establishment, as embodied by outgoing Mayor Willie Brown and his anointed would-be successor, 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. 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.

Had it been ready this year, IRV was being touted as giving the city's hopelessly divided progressives a shot at fielding a mayoral candidate who could compete better against front-runner Newsom, the well-financed darling of downtown business interests.

But in the 20 months since IRV's passage, the city's supposedly reformist Elections Commission and the Elections Department, under new director Arntz, have dragged their feet, unable or, as critics insist, unwilling to implement instant runoff voting. A Superior Court judge in August chastised elections officials for failing to put IRV in place, but ruled against a voter education group's demand that city officials be forced to use it in November even if they had to count ballots by hand. Judge James Warren ruled that to require them to do so at such a late date might jeopardize the election.

The secretary of state's role was thrust to the forefront in July after a panel of eight of his underlings gave the appearance of having already made up its mind in rejecting an alternative plan to count votes by hand, if necessary, should ES&S's modifications of the optical scanners not be ready in time. Since then, ES&S, the Elections Department, and the secretary of state have wrangled over whether the company's equipment should have been certified in time for the general election.

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