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March 12, 2003


Elections, San Francisco-Style

The Status of Instant Runoff Voting

By Betsey Culp (bculp@sfcall.com)

Wednesday, March 5, 7:00 pm. In the Hall of Justice, a mini-riot has just broken out at the San Francisco Police Commission meeting, but Room 400 in City Hall is quiet. A group of about 40 people, predominately white males, half-fills the seats in the audience section, talking softly to one another as the members of the Elections Commission wander in and take their places.

In Elections Commission meetings, public comment comes first. And these spectators have come to comment, one after another, on the same subject: exactly one year ago, the voters of San Francisco passed Proposition A, making instant runoff voting the designated method of electing local officials. Exactly one year later, they argue, implementation of the proposition is still uncertain. What, they ask, is the commission doing to make sure the voters’ will becomes a reality?

In private meetings with interested citizens, Department of Elections acting director John Arntz has offered assurances that everything is falling into place. But the lack of a signed contract with software vendor ESS (Election Systems and Software) offers no reassurance. Nor does a Chronicle article, published on February 17, that begins, “San Francisco's oft-maligned Elections Department fears it may not have a new voter-approved "instant runoff" system - the largest of its kind ever attempted in the country - ready for the November mayoral election.”

The speakers say their piece and the commission goes into closed session to consider an entirely separate matter. The question, repeated 20 times, goes unanswered.

What, then, is the answer?

Two days after the Elections Commission meeting, the Department of Elections holds a brown-bag lunch to educate candidates on the ins and outs of running a campaign. The seven or eight participants receive a quickie course in the election calendar, how to access voter registration databases, and the status of instant runoff voting (or ranked choice voting, as the process has now been renamed). The Call has acquired a memo that describes the last part of the meeting:

IRV in SF (rev. 3.14.03)

Report from a person who attended a brown bag lunch at Dept. of Elections March 7, 2003

By Chris Maden

I attended a meeting at the San Francisco Department of Elections on Friday, March 7. It was a brown bag seminar for mayoral candidates and their staff; I attended for Michael Denny's campaign. The main purpose of the meeting was to introduce ranked choice voting to the candidates and their campaigns; we had a very frank presentation from Eugene Tom, who I understand is the ballot designer.

First, they are going ahead with RCV. Barring any legal challenges, this will be the method used for the November 2003 elections for mayor, district attorney, and sheriff. They have a worst-case plan prepared to do a manual count and calculation.

Second, the Department of Elections is calling this "ranked choice voting" (RCV) instead of "instant run-off voting" (IRV) to dispel any notion that there will be instant results. Because they need to know not only who got the most first-place votes, but more importantly, who got the fewest, they have to have all ballots in before they can proceed. Unless the winner has a clear and overwhelming majority, that means they have to tally all absentee and provisional ballots, which will take until Saturday or Sunday after the election.

If they receive full vendor support from the ballot machine company, they can then produce results in a day or two after that; it's just number-crunching. However, without that support, they will need to tally each ballot manually under the rules set by the Secretary of State, which involve the procedure some of you may have seen in Florida after the 2000 presidential election: an official, an observer, and two recorders go through a pile one at a time, holding up the ballot, declaiming its number, and reading off the votes. Under this scenario, the actual number-crunching will still only take a day, but it may take five weeks to declare a winner. Note that they expect about 240,000 votes for over twenty candidates for mayor. (For comparison, the two eastern cities that use choice voting have about 19,000 ballots to deal with.)

The law as passed in March, 2002, requests that voters be able to rank all choices, but mandates a minimum of three choices in the face of logistical difficulty. The current plan is to go with three choices. The vendor's Eagle Optech machines can really only handle one-of-many votes; they are certainly not equipped for tallying standardized-test-type bubble fill-ins. So the plan is to have three lists of candidates for each race: Mayor, first choice, pick one: Brown, Smith, Jones; Mayor, second choice, pick one: Brown, Smith, Jones; Mayor, third choice, pick one: Brown, Smith, Jones.

The reporting problem is that the software is currently designed to tally the votes in each race separately; i.e., it could report that Brown got 100,000 first-place votes, 70,000 second-place votes, and 20,000 third-place votes, but it can't say that there were 30,000 ballots with Brown-Smith-Jones, 22,000 with Smith-Brown-Jones, etc. The actual correlation between the votes on each ballot is critical for tracking which second-choice votes get used.

So the machine vendor is working on this reporting capability, but there's a Catch-22 situation, as reported by Caleb Kleppner of the Center for Voting and Democracy. Eugene Tom was very frank about this. There's not a new contract to sign; they're already locked into ES&S, per "our wise predecessors" (Tom's words). However, ES&S says that this isn't in their contract, and they want more money to develop it. The city doesn't want to pay unless they can guarantee certification; ES&S doesn't want to work on it unless they're going to get paid; and the Secretary of State can't guarantee certification of something they haven't seen.

So the good news is that RCV is going to happen. The bad news is (a) it might be a hugely complicated affair, and (b) it's not complete IRV because the voters only get three choices.

The Department of Elections is looking to the candidates, campaigns, and parties to publicize this and to educate the voters on the new system. Please help them out as best you can when talking with friends.

Finally, I have had nothing but positive dealings with the folks at Elections. They are a very patient bunch, very good at explaining procedures to candidates and potential candidates, and they seem to be doing their best in the face of a bad situation with regard to the logistics here. Anyone who isn't directly involved in a campaign should offer to help out with the manual count, should it become necessary; they're going to need a lot of staff to get it done.


Chris Maden is the Chair of the Libertarian Party of San Francisco and a volunteer with the Denny for Mayor campaign.