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
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 (www.fairvote.org).
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 www.democracyusa.org/events/conference.html]