Instant Runoff Voting Setback in San Francisco | Fair Vote Minnesota


Instant Runoff Voting Setback in San Francisco

In March 2002, the voters of San Francisco amended their city charter

to replace their problematic two-round runoff election system with instant

runoff voting for municipal elections. The city elections department,

notorious for its ineffectiveness, recently declared that it could not

figure out how to implement instant runoff voting for this November's

municipal election, even though it has had 17 months to work on it, and

that it intended to administer the election using the now-outlawed two-round

runoff system.

The Center for Voting and Democracy led a suit against the city, asking

the judge to require the city to follow the law. FairVote Minnesota consultant

Dave Carson helped prepare the brief presented at the hearing. While

acknowledging the correctness of the Center's legal argument and its

persuasive presentation that others can and have administered instant

runoff voting in much more challenging circumstances, the judge accepted

the city's claim that the San Francisco elections department could not

administer an instant runoff voting election this year and that an outlawed

election method should be used.

In other words, the judge decided to allow the city to violate the

law because of the city election department's incompetence. One of the

Center's arguments had been that if the city lacked competence to administer

an instant runoff voting election, then it could hire a reputable British

firm with proven competence at counting ballots using instant runoff

voting. Because of this, it is unacceptable that the city should be allowed

to violate the law on the argument of its own incompetence. The Center

is considering an appeal, but may be hindered by its cost and uncertain

prospects for overturning the decision. FairVote Minnesota will continue

to support the Center's efforts in San Francisco and will keep you informed

of developments there.

The good news coming out of this situation is that San Francisco's

voting equipment vendor, Election Systems and Software (ES&S), completed

its development of the firmware plug-in for its optical scanners to process

the ranked ballot used in instant runoff voting and it was approved by

the federal government. ES&S is Minnesota's largest voting equipment


This means that both of Minnesota's voting equipment vendors, ES&S

and Diebold, now have federally-approved ranked ballot capacity for their

optical scanners. Lack of technology is no longer an argument against

adopting instant runoff voting in Minnesota. FairVote Minnesota will

continue to advocate for acquiring this technology in Minnesota voting


The Center for Voting and Democracy recently issued the following statement

about the San Francisco situation.

From the Center for Voting and Democracy

Bureaucrats stall IRV in San Francisco: Elected and unelected officials

nationwide block reform legislation

By Steven Hill and Rob Richie

Instant runoff voting (IRV) is an exciting new reform idea in the United

States. IRV allows voters to rank their candidates, 1, 2, 3, and the

rankings are used to hold an "instant" runoff election if no candidate

has an initial majority. Election winners are those supported by a majority,

elected in a single election, and candidates from multiple perspectives

can run without fear of being branded a spoiler or splitting the vote.

For that reason, IRV is a clear ticket to multi-party democracy.

Well-tested in a growing number of places around the world, including

national elections in Ireland and Australia, IRV also encourages coalition-building

and higher voter turnout. In March 2002, IRV advocates won a stirring

ballot measure victory in San Francisco, beating back opponents who spent

more than $100,000 to keep the status quo.

But powerful opponents do not give up easily. On August 20, a Superior

Court judge ruled that the San Francisco Department of Elections is breaking

the law by failing to implement IRV for this November's elections for

mayor and other offices. The judge sternly chastised the Department,

characterizing its efforts to implement IRV since passage of the charter

amendment as "fumbling" and "haphazard."

In a troubling turn, however, the judge gave the Department of Elections

permission to postpone implementing IRV until 2004. He feared that, with

time running out before the November election combined with the pressures

of the statewide recall election in October, these bumbling bureaucrats

could not be relied on to implement IRV fairly.

It was a classic Catch-22. Immediately following his ruling, the city's

elections director then had the gall to tell reporters that he could

not guarantee that IRV will be in place by the November 2004 elections,

more than two and a half years after voters approved the system. Apparently

no amount of time is enough for this fumbling director.

The ruling has disappointed IRV advocates, both those in the City who

looked forward to its positive impact on the City's hotly contested race

for mayor, and those who believe that an American model of IRV will lead

to rapid adoption in a range of elections across the nation.

But beyond its impact on IRV, this year's developments point to a larger

problem. What happens when unelected government bureaucrats fail, either

by design or ineptitude, to implement the law? After the marches and

protests of the civil rights movement that resulted in landmark legislation,

the federal government forced Southern bureaucrats to uphold the law.

Who will uphold the laws for democratic reform in San Francisco, or other

states and cities?

In Alameda County, for example, when charter cities Berkeley and Oakland

expressed interest in using IRV, the county's Director of Elections informed

both cities that he would refuse to run their elections and even deny

them the opportunity to use the county's voting equipment for IRV elections.

In Santa Rosa, a charter commission last year recommended using another

fair election method called cumulative voting for city council elections

to give better representation to that community's burgeoning diversity,

but the county election director informed them she would not run cumulative

voting elections. These administrators are not elected, but apparently

hold effective veto power over proposed reforms.

In Massachusetts, a major victory at the ballot box for public financing

of elections was upended by the Speaker of the House, and even a court

order was unable to prevent it. Federal bureaucrats began undermining

McCain-Feingold immediately following its passage. In other states, reformers

seek badly-needed changes like election day registration (EDR). But what

if a state passed EDR, only to see election officials refuse to implement

it? What recourse do reformers have when unelected bureaucrats, or even

elected politicians, disobey the law?

They can go to court, as we did in San Francisco. But going to court

is expensive -- and in this case, still did not lead the judge to order

election administrators to uphold the law and do their job.

There are lessons to be learned here. For one, winning at the ballot

box is only part of the battle. The movement for political reform, whether

it involves clean elections or IRV, must be prepared to defend its wins

in court, and to resist repeal attempts. The history of full (proportional)

representation used in two dozen city councils like New York City and

Cincinnati shows that the anti-reformers mounted repeal after repeal,

waiting for any opportunity to roll back the reform that most challenged

their political machines.

But is the national reform movement equipped -- financially and strategically

-- for such a deep and unwavering commitment? Where are the movement

lawyers, the movement funders, and political strategists who can assist

reformers in the field when our successes are threatened? Does the movement

for political reform have the strength and strategy to hold stonewalling

bureaucrats' feet to the fire?

There are no easy answers to these questions. IRV is far from dead

in San Francisco, as advocates are preparing a strategy to ensure IRV

is implemented in November 2004. Yet this is an opportune time for reflection,

as we assess how state and national reformers can keep the reforms they

win even as they seek urgently needed new victories. Steven Hill and

Rob Richie are with the Center for Voting and Democracy (

Hill was the campaign manager for the ballot measure which passed IRV

and a leader for the effort to implement IRV.

[For more information about CVD's upcoming national conference, "Claim

Democracy," November 22-23 in Washington, D.C., backed by a broad range

of pro-democracy groups, visit]





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