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May 28, 2003


Center for Voting and Democracy: SF Election Watch

The latest news about implementation of Ranked Choice (Instant Runoff) Voting


Ranked Choice Voting Progress

The Secretary of State continues to conduct the required administrative review of the SF Dept. of Elections’ "partial hand count" procedures for counting ranked choice ballots. State Elections Division Chief John Mott-Smith called the proposal “potentially workable” and will soon schedule a public hearing on it. A ruling on state certification of the City’s procedures will be issued 30 days following the public hearing. This is all normal administrative procedure.

A “partial hand count” is similar to how ranked choice ballots are counted in other nations, including New Zealand, Ireland, and Australia, and also previously in Cambridge, Massachusetts. With a "partial hand count," first rankings will be counted on election night on the Optech Eagle machine, the way ballots always have been counted in San Francisco on the Eagle. Those results will be posted on Election Night. If no one has a majority of first choices, the Dept. of Elections will use a hand scanner to finish the job. While this could take a couple of weeks to finish and be labor-intensive, this process would give San Francisco the most transparent and secure ballot-counting process it has ever had.

What about counting the ballots entirely with the Eagle machines? Counting all ballots entirely with the Eagle machines is still the preference of all parties involved and the voting equipment vendor, ES&S, is continuing work to retrofit the Eagles in time for use on Election Day. But there may not be enough time for this election to receive required certification for changes in voting equipment hardware and software. So for this election we may need a one-time solution, and then the Eagles will be ready for all future elections.

It is important to note: The difficulty in meeting these timelines is not because the job of upgrading the Eagles is too hard, but because the Dept. of Elections lost a good eight months of crucial time over the “Tammy Haygood Affair.” Proposition A was passed on March 5, 2002 but, unfortunately, Haygood did not begin immediately implementing Proposition A and she was eventually fired by the Elections Commission. The first meetings with new Elections Director John Arntz about Ranked Choice Voting did not occur until August 2002. The first decision by Director Arntz giving direction to the vendor ES&S did not occur until October 2002. The first contract negotiations and actual work for implementation did not occur until January 2003. By that time, the Department had lost nearly a full year for RCV implementation. Nevertheless, the vendor, ES&S, says they will be able to meet their deadlines and facilitate a smooth election.

Board of Supervisors President Matt Gonzalez has introduced a budget appropriation of $1.6 million for upgrading the Eagles to handle Ranked Choice Voting. The negotiated contract, which is close to being signed, has benchmarks in it in case the vendor, ES&S, is unable to meet the tight timeline. The Board has begun to consider the funding proposal for the implementation of Ranked Choice Voting and on Wednesday, June 4, the Board’s Finance Committee will consider this and another key funding proposal to implement Ranked Choice Voting. The meeting will take place at 12:30 pm in Room 263 at City Hall. Please attend.

Supervisor Gerardo Sandoval introduced a $2.5 million budget appropriation for the Department of Elections’ proposed Community Education Plan for Ranked Choice Voting. That budget appropriation also will be considered by the Board’s Finance Committee on June 4. The Dept. of Elections has made public the details of its ambitious plan to carry out RCV Voter Education, which is required by the City Charter. The price tag for this plan may be higher than is possible to get funded in these difficult budget times. Consequently, an independent analysis of the plan by the Center for Voting and Democracy, along with recommendations for what should be prioritized in case the plan has to be scaled back, was presented to Director Arntz and the Elections Commission on May 21. For a copy of the independent analysis please email SFelectionwatch@aol.com.

Latest Action by Opponents of Ranked Choice Voting

The San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner recently reported on a “legal challenge” to Ranked Choice Voting. What they were reporting on was not a legal challenge or lawsuit, but a letter sent to the Secretary of State by the Sacramento law firm Remcho, Johansen & Purcell, whose attorneys have represented Mayor Willie Brown and other prominent politicians on election matters. This letter is part of the public comment that anyone can make to the Secretary of State as part of its certification process of the procedures and equipment to be used for Ranked Choice Voting.

In the letter, the Sacramento firm claimed to represent “several minority voters” in San Francisco. The letter claimed that RCV will "disenfranchise a disproportionate number of minority voters and diminish their ability to participate in San Francisco's electoral process." It also claimed that "San Francisco has presented no contingency plans should that cash-strapped city fail to come up with the additional $2.3 million needed to fund the full manual count," and that "San Francisco's current proposal bears no resemblance to the system proposed to the voters as Proposition A." While this is not a legal challenge per se, some have claimed that this is the basis for a lawsuit that will be filed soon. According to several voting rights attorneys, if these are the best legal arguments they have to repeal RCV, which was passed by 55% of all San Francisco voters - and more than 60% of African-American and Latino voters - they will lose badly in court. Certainly all evidence from other nations and American cities suggests that people of color will have more voting power with RCV than with December runoffs. And opponents may end up paying court fees and perhaps legal damages.

Inside the Elections Commission and Department of Elections

The Commission has elected Alix Rosenthal as its new president. Rosenthal, who was appointed to serve on the Commission until January 2006 by ex-Public Defender Kimiko Burton, pledged to implement Ranked Choice Voting and create greater transparency of the Elections Department.

This month, the Commission also welcomed its newest member, Reverend Arnold Townsend, Assistant Pastor of Bread of Life Community Church. Appointed by Mayor Brown, Rev. Townsend made his first official act a request to schedule a public hearing on the Dept. of Elections’ draft Ranked Choice Voting Public Outreach Plan.

On May 21, the Elections Commission voted to appoint John Arntz as the permanent director of the Department of Elections for a five-year term. Arntz had been serving as the acting director since last year.

Following last year’s redistricting, the Dept. of Elections staff recently completed a re-precincting of the City’s voter map and are proposing to consolidate the current 643 precincts into 562 precincts.

Mark Your Calendar

On Wednesday, June 4, the Board of Supervisors Finance Committee will consider the two key funding proposals to implement Ranked Choice Voting. The meeting will take place at 12:30 pm in Room 263 at City Hall. Please come and show your support.

On Wednesday, June 18, the Elections Commission will hold a public hearing on the Ranked Choice Voting Public Education Plan proposed by the Dept. of Elections. This will be a prime opportunity for interested organizations and members of the community to shape the final plan. 7:00 pm in Room 400 at City Hall. Come and be heard.

SF Election Watch is a project of the Center for Voting and Democracy. For more information contact Jon Golinger at (415) 531-8585 or SFelectionwatch@aol.com, or visit www.fairvote.org/sf.