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San Francisco Wins Voting-System Suit

Public-interest groups lose bid to force use of instant-runoff balloting in the Nov. 4 election.

August 21, 2003|Lee Romney | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — A Superior Court judge Wednesday refused to order city elections officials to implement an instant-runoff voting system for its Nov. 4 elections for mayor and district attorney, even though the city charter calls on them to do so.

Voters approved the new system in March 2002. Also known as ranked-choice voting, it allows voters to select candidates in order of preference. The votes are then counted in a way that eliminates the need for a traditional runoff election, in which the two top vote-getters face off if neither receives more than 50% of the vote.

The system has been touted as a way to better reflect the will of the voters while saving tax dollars. San Francisco would become the largest city to implement such a system. Other cities, including Los Angeles and Pasadena, are watching the experiment closely.

But San Francisco's Elections Department has not implemented the system. Elections chief John Arntz has said that no approved electronic vote-counting system was available to the city, forcing a cumbersome hand count that could last weeks. With the unexpected Oct. 7 recall, educating voters about the new system and preparing for it by November could be disastrous, city officials argued.

While Superior Court Judge James Warren called the city's handling of the matter over the last 17 months "fumbling," he ruled that preserving the integrity of the election process was more important than proceeding with the new system.

The lawsuit that sought to compel the city to implement the system was brought by the Center for Voting and Democracy, the San Francisco Labor Council and other public-interest groups.

"When voters pass a proposition that has to do with democracy itself, and then bureaucrats can get away without implementing it, then democracy itself suffers," said Steven Hill, senior analyst for the Center for Voting and Democracy.

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