Too many candidates causing problems in San Francisco elections

Supervisor David Campos has proposed a charter amendment to “tweak” San Francisco’s ranked-choice voting system by expanding the number of votes each of us gets from three to “however many candidates are running for office.” For example, if his law had been in place this past November, each voter would have been able to rank all sixteen mayoral candidates in order of preference.

Does this sound familiar? It should. When the voters enacted “instant runoff voting” in March 2002, the City Charter was amended to include the following: “The ballot shall allow voters to rank a number of choices in order of preference equal to the total number of candidates for each office; provided, however, if the voting system, vote tabulation system or similar or related equipment used by the city and county cannot feasibly accommodate choices equal to the total number of candidates running for each office, then the director of elections may limit the number of choices a voter may rank to no fewer than three.”

If the charter already says we should be ranking all the candidates unless it is not feasible to “accommodate choices equal to the total number of candidates running for each office,” why do we only have three choices?

Because ranking all the choices isn’t feasible. Our current voting systems do not allow for more than three votes per office.

Whatever voting system is adopted by The City has to be certified by the federal government and the state of California — a Byzantine process that severely limits our options.

According to Elections Department Director John Arntz, currently only one California-certified company makes machines that are capable of reading ranked-choice ballots, and three is the most it can accommodate.

Can we get someone to invent and certify a system that allows the ranking of all candidates?

“Probably,” said Arntz, but “it would take at least a year and a half to have a new system certified by the federal and state governments in addition to the time required to develop the new system.”

Then there is the issue of cost. Arntz explained that after instant runoff voting was passed by voters, it cost $1.6 million to upgrade our voting systems in 2003-2004. Then, in 2008, The City spent another $650,000 to add ranked-choice voting capacity to a new set of machines. At a cost of $1 million to get certified by the federal government and $300,000 to get certified by the state, we can expect to foot the bill if we order up another special set of machines that can handle a variable and high number of choices per voter. 

Campos’ proposal is a response to a measure from supervisors Mark Farrell and Sean Elsbernd that would eliminate ranked-choice voting altogether.

The idea that ranked-choice voting saves time and money is the main argument for keeping the current system, so Campos’ costly and potentially confusing scheme is probably not the best alternative. This charter amendment needs to be “tweaked.”

City Hall historian reveals lighter side of serious landmark

Upon entering City Hall from the front, one is presented with a docent kiosk covered in letters to “Ms. Schumer.” In children’s scrawl, they say, “Thank you for the awesome tour” and “We learned so much! How did you know all that?” and “There is pretty much a story to everything.”

Indeed, there is “pretty much a story to everything” at City Hall, and the woman who knows them all is Ellen Schumer, City Hall historian.

At the holiday open house held Sunday, I had a chance to talk to Schumer — an elegant woman who is passionate about history and San Francisco — and she provided these fun facts about City Hall.

  • Marilyn Monroe married Joe DiMaggio at City Hall while wearing a high-necked black dress given to her byCyril Magnin, The City’s first chief of protocol. The ceremony took place in Judge Charles Perry’s office on the fourth floor, in what Schumer described as a “dark, dirty, dingy courtroom.”
  • George Christopher, who was mayor from 1958 to 1964, grew up in San Francisco. As a young boy, Christopher’s mother would walk him around City Hall and point to the building, saying, “You should get a job there someday.”
  • The City’s official flower is the dahlia. The reason? Before San Francisco was officially a city, the president of Mexico sent dahlias to the “alcalde” of Yerba Buena — the mayor of the territory that would become San Francisco. The flowers couldn’t survive in this climate and were sent to England, France and Spain to be part of an effort to create a dahlia hybrid. When the flowers came back to our fair city, there was an outcry to make the dahlia the official flower because it represented our “willingness to embrace and adopt all people and all things.”

“I told that to Willie Brown,” Schumer said with a chuckle, “and he said, ‘If I had thought of that line, I would be president by now.’”

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