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SF Gate: Instant runoff a question for mayor's race/Complex software still in works -- Shelley must give his OK

 Anyone, how does our system handle the instant runoff scenario?
This article was sent to you by someone who found it on SF Gate.
The original article can be found on SFGate.com here:
Monday, February 17, 2003 (SF Chronicle)
Instant runoff a question for mayor's race/Complex software still in works -- Shelley must give his OK
John Wildermuth, Chronicle Political Writer

   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 instant runoff system would dramatically alter the way local votes are
cast and counted, but much remains to do before the plan becomes real,
said John Arntz, acting director of the city Elections Department.
   "There's been a lot of discussion, a lot of back and forth and a lot of
worrying," he said.
   When San Francisco voters easily approved Measure A last year, the city's
marching orders were clear: dump the high-cost, low-turnout mid-December
runoff elections -- in a hurry.
   San Francisco would be the first major city in the nation to use the
instant runoff system, which is so new that private companies are still
trying to develop the computer software that would be needed to count the
   "We've gone through the preliminary work and determined how we want this
to work," said Mike Limas, chief operating officer of Nebraska's Election
Systems and Software, which is working with the city. "We're still in the
development stage in terms of rewriting the software."
   Secretary of State Kevin Shelley, a former San Francisco supervisor and
assemblyman, will have to approve any new voting system, and no one knows
how long that would take.
   "The state actually wants a working system to evaluate, not just an idea,"
Arntz said. "They want to see hardware, (election) procedures and
everything else."
   Shelley, who endorsed the instant runoff initiative last year, already is
concerned that plans for the new system aren't moving quickly enough. To
meet San Francisco's self-imposed June 30 deadline for planning the
November election, Shelley's office needs to have a complete system for
evaluation by April.
   "We're running up against time," Shelley said. "I told both Arntz and
(Election Systems and Software) they have to get their act together.
   "We want to meet the will of the voters, if we can," he added. "They've
got to put something in front of me, sooner rather than later."
   But frustrated San Francisco officials say they're doing all they can.
   "We're not in the creation-of-voting-systems business, we're in the
business of running elections," Arntz said.
   Under the instant runoff system, which election officials prefer to call a
"ranked choice" ballot, voters list their top three choices in order for
mayor -- and every other office on the ballot -- and the votes are
tallied. If one candidate is the top choice on more than 50 percent of the
ballots, he or she is the winner.
   If no one receives a majority of votes, the candidate with the least votes
is eliminated. Any ballots listing that candidate as top choice are
recounted, this time with the No. 2 pick moved to the top slot. That
process continues, with candidates being eliminated and lesser choices
moving up, until one candidate has a majority.
   In Cambridge, Mass., which uses a similar system to choose its city
council and school board, the 2001 election used 14 elimination rounds to
select nine council members from among 28 candidates.
   But Cambridge had slightly more than 17,000 people vote in that last
council election, while San Francisco had 228,000 votes cast in the 1999
December runoff election. That means more ballots, more polling places and
the potential for more problems.
   Bradley Clark, Alameda County's registrar of voters, has talked with
colleagues in Australia about how they have dealt with instant runoff or
ranked choice ballots. It's very different, he said.
   "In every place it's used, people only vote for one or two offices, and
they're generally on separate ballots," he said. "In the state of
Victoria, poll workers hand count the first preferences" at each
individual precinct.
   In San Francisco, provisional ballots and absentee ballots dropped off at
polling places on election day also could cause problems because it can
take up to a week to authenticate each of those votes by hand.
   "You have to know who finished last" before you start the process of
elimination, Bradley said, and that's not known until every vote is
   That's one reason Bradley has told Alameda County cities that they're on
their own if they decide to follow San Francisco's lead and opt for
instant runoff voting.
   "I told them that until there's a state law that tells me how to do this,
I'm not going to conduct their elections," he said. "I can't make
procedures up as I go along."
   Arntz doesn't have that luxury. San Francisco voters have told him that an
instant runoff system must be used Nov 4.
   There are still decisions that have to be made. While tentative plans call
for spending about $1.5 million to adapt the city's 2-year-old optical
scan voting machines to the instant runoff, Arntz wants the city to
consider spending $15 million for "computer touch screen" terminals that
might make the voting system easier.
   The city also is preparing a contingency plan in case the computer
software isn't ready by November. That involves counting each ballot by
hand as many times as it takes to go through the ranking system.
   That's not an alternative Arntz is eager to contemplate.
   "It would be a tremendous challenge to tally the 250,000 cards that come
in from the polling places," he said.
   The city's history of election troubles also is a concern. The raucous
dispute over the fate of Tammy Haygood, the city's former election chief,
kept that department in turmoil last year. An election day foul-up that
left some precincts temporarily short of ballots last November led a
frustrated Mayor Willie Brown to call for a state trustee to run the
city's election operation.
   "We're putting an unknown system with unknown complexity on top of the
(elections) department," said Charles Marsteller, a former Common Cause
coordinator who opposed last year's voting initiative. "They should have
been given time to inventory all the things wrong before starting
something new."
   But backers of the instant runoff are confident any wrinkles will be
smoothed out by November.
   "I'm very optimistic," said Board of Supervisors President Matt Gonzalez.
"Jurisdictions in Ireland, England and other parts of the world have used
the method for years with no problem."

   E-mail John Wildermuth at jwildermuth@sfchronicle.com. 
Copyright 2003 SF Chronicle