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San Francisco

Largest Jurisdiction in United States to Implement "Instant Runoff Voting"

Implementation and News Articles

Introduction to San Francisco's elections.

The new system approved by San Francisco residents in March 2002. Back then, the pioneering experiment was referred to by its catchier synonym, "instant-runoff voting." City officials switched the name to Ranked Choice Voting in 2004 when they realized there wouldn't be much particularly instantaneous about it. See 11/5/2004 AP News Ranked-choice voting' experiment hits tech snag 

San Francisco requires a threshold of 50 percent plus one of the votes when every ballot is tallied.  If that threshold is not met, the city will then run the ranked-choice system, eliminating the lowest-ranking candidates and reshuffling their second- and third-place votes until someone has a majority "of the continuing ballots". San Francisco modified the city charter to address the new definition of majority  to accommodate instant runoff voting.

Focus is on transparency, accountability, training, staffing and massive voter education efforts. The elections department expends money and labor to make IRV as transparent as possible and has massive expensive voter education efforts. The security of San Francisco's elections is increased thanks to rigorous standards for voting machines issued by Secretary of State Debra Bowen. No other state has enforced as strict of standards and security measures as has California.  Bown had a complete review of all of their voting machines  As a result, they decertified all touch screens and allow them just for the very few votes by disabled who come to the polling places. All of these touch screens must have a 100% audit of the paper trail.

San Francisco has new Sequoia optical scanners and touch screens that are IRV capable, which were at first conditionally certified.  In the case of machine issues, votes would be tabulated by hand at a central location at the county office.

Voter Education remains an issue.  After four years of instant runoff elections, some of San Francisco's poll workers and voters still do not understand IRV according to a 2007-2008 Grand Jury report .

San Francisco's IRV program and elections in general are carefully managed -

They developed  rules for how the machines and the poll workers. The machines must know how to treat exceptions such as overvotes, undervotes and even when voters skips a contest, ranks 1 and 3 but not 2nd. Their 3,000 poll workers  must be trained on how to help voters if these exceptions occur.  Voting is done by either absentee by mail or on election day.  California does not have early voting.

Transparency is provided by reporting  all raw vote data - for all rankings so that the public can verify the results. The department  reports undervotes, overvotes, eligible ballots and exhausted ballots.

There is a heavy emphasis on voter education, with the city spending as much as $1.87 per registered voter  in the first year, and approximately 700 public appearances. Learn more about the costs and budget for San Francisco elections here.


San Francisco's Demographics. This city is one of the richest  in the nation. The San Francisco median household income is $57,833 and the median family income, at $67,809 in 2005, is the third-highest for any large city in the nation. Following a national trend, an out-migration of middle class families  is contributing to widening income disparity  and has left the city with a lower proportion of children,  14.5 percent, than any other large American city.

Elections after 4 years of instant runoff voting

More voter education and poll worker training is needed.  After four years of instant runoff elections, some of San Francisco's poll workers and voters still do not understand IRV according to a 2007-2008 Grand Jury report .

Disaster was averted in the Nov 2007 election since there was no need for an "instant runoff".

Voter turnout  has declined.  In the 2007 mayoral/municipal election, turnout was only 35.61%, with 100,000 fewer voters than in the mayoral runoff in 2003 where 54% of the voters turned out to vote.

Many SF Voters did not utilize the option to rank choices. 94% of absentee voters did not list 3 choices on their ballots  in the November municipal election, even though the field of candidates for mayor was large. 

There was  confusion over ranking. According to a Nov 8, 2007 Electionline report "Voters also questioned the value of ranked-choice voting." "There are a lot of people who only mark one [candidate] or the same person three times," "I don't want to vote for a second one, I want this one."

San Francisco's actual election expenditures - IRV added new costs to elections.

San Francisco’s higher expenses include special voting software, special poll worker training, more laborious and costly recounts, and IRV related voter education costing about $1.87 per registered voter. San Francisco recently agreed to purchase a new IRV capable voting system for $12 Million, four year contract for new Sequoia Voting machines.  If machines could not be used for some reason, the Elections Department estimates that it would cost $1 Million to hand count the ballots. (From  Recommendations of the Budget Analyst for Amendment of Budget Items 2007-2008)

In 2007-2008 , SF's annual average number of registered voters was 427,591. 
The annual number of outreach events to target communities 693
Annual number of educational presentations313
Annual number of educational presentation program attendees 43,981

Maybe IRV saves money, but there isn't a solid cost savings analysis using San Francisco's actual election department's net annual expenditures. From San Francisco's Budget Reports:

2000-2001 Actual   9,024,000
2001-2002 Actual  13,872,000 includes the cost of $1,322,849 for a runoff election & $150,000 due to litigation costs
2002-2003 Actual   8,610,553
2003-2004 Actual  15,204,781
2004-2005 Actual  10,400,868
2005-2006 Actual  11,930,228
2006-2007 Actual  10,062,052  (budget)  9,126,318
2007-2008 Actual 14,839,686  (budget) 19,809,917

News Articles

Tuesday, February 9, 2010 Why San Francisco's instant runoff voting does not allow ranking of all candidates The Million Dollar question still unasked is: WHY DOESN'T SAN FRANCISCO ALLOW VOTERS TO RANK ALL CANDIDATES THAT ARE ON THE BALLOT? The short answer is paper ballots.

Sunday, February 7, 2010 Instant runoff voting method challenged in San Francisco, the substance of the case A suite against San Francisco's method of instant runoff voting was filed last week...San Francisco's novel system violates the constitutional rights of voters because it arbitrarily and illegally extinguishes a voters right to vote once his or her three ranked candidates are eliminated from contention...

Friday, February 5, 2010 Group sues to stop instant runoff elections in San Francisco, hearing 3-12 

Tuesday, January 5, 2010 Instant Runoff Voting met campaign finance snag in San Francisco Cities considering Instant runoff voting should examine their charters for campaign finance laws and laws regarding majority requirements...The problem is a section of the city's campaign and government conduct code, which mirrors a provision in state law, prohibiting candidates from making independent expenditures to support or oppose other candidates. 

Thursday, December 31, 2009 San Francisco-The Worst-Run Big City in the U.S. if only they had instant runoff voting Oh wait they DO

Thursday, December 10, 2009 An Instant Runoff Voting Majority is not what you think ...This process of eliminating candidates and transferring their votes to the next-ranked continuing candidates shall be repeated until a candidate receives a majority of the votes from the continuing ballots." SEC. 13.102. -

November 5, 2009 Instant Runoff Voting really bad says former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown The Hon. Willie Brown, Former Assembly member and Speaker of the California Assembly, and most popular Mayor of San Francisco gives his opinion on Instant Runoff Voting (YouTube video)

October 29, 2009 San Francisco Instant runoff voting 2009 Most Boring Election Ever - incumbents always re-elected ... all the promises made about IRV never came true. We're left with paying for an expensive system that hasn't lived up to its promises. If someone is a lame nobody running for office, they still lose. Just because we played games to fit the needs of a handful of ideologues whose true agenda has yet to be revealed, doesn't mean anything is different....

October 10, 2009 NO challengers in San Francisco 2009 Instant runoff election San Francisco is having an instant runoff voting election in November 2009, but hardly anyone is running. Both citywide offices have ONE candidate EACH. But San Francisco has to run the numbers and go through the expense of IRV anyway. Voters will see an IRV ballot for both uncontested races.

June 22, 2009 San Francisco to put Instant Runoff Voting out of its misery? A possible repeal of Instant runoff voting was discussed by the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce at a meeting last Thursday, June 18th.

Letter from San Francisco: Politicos turning against Instant Runoff and Politics are nasty as ever September 6, 2008

San Francisco Grand Jury Report:  poll workers and voters do not understand instant runoff, voting machines not yet certified....Grand Jury Report, Our blog July 3, 08

Five counties may use contested voting machines in February   Associated Press, 12/11/07  (SACRAMENTO, (AP) -- California's secretary of state will let five counties use their electronic voting machines in the February primary election, despite her claim that the machines were sold without proper certification. Secretary of...
Wyatt Buchanan, San Francisco Chronicle, 12/05/07  Advocates for complete transparency in the inner workings of voting machines have found a sympathetic home in San Francisco - but they ran into a brick wall at City Hall on Wednesday. A Board of Supervisors committee took the city a step closer to buying...
Wyatt Buchanan, San Francisco Chronicle, 12/05/07 San Francisco officials missed a deadline Tuesday to certify the outcome of the local Nov. 6 election after a partial check found too many errors in the tally of absentee ballots run through the city's electronic voting machines. Instead, city officials...
S.F. lawsuit accuses Nebraska vote machine vendor of fraud
John Wildermuth, San Francisco Chronicle, 11/21/07
Election Systems & Software's legal problems continued to pile up Tuesday when San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera sued the Nebraska voting machine vendor, alleging fraud, breach of contract and a variety of other offenses. In the suit, filed in San...
Election Results Show Newsom at 74% -- Beyond Chron. Nov. 16‚ 2007 --Paul Hogarth. In the final days of the Election, Newsom told voters to "make it simple for themselves by just voting for one choice for mayor." And that's what many of his supporters did. With virtually all Election Day votes counted, the Mayor currently stands at 73.67%.

Supervisors moving ahead on buying new voting machines Wyatt Buchanan, San Francisco Chronicle, 11/15/07

San Francisco supervisors are moving forward with a contract to purchase new voting machines, a move that would forestall a February repeat of the slow tally of the Nov. 6 election but that isn't likely to satisfy advocates for unfettered public review of..."The thing is, the other option is so unattractive that this might smell better, but I don't think it's really going to do what we're asking," said Supervisor Tom Ammiano. "Things have to be public, not just semi-public."

Only 30000 ballots left ... - SAN FRANCISCO  - Nov 12, 2007. Only a few San Francisco measures are still at stake as dozens of vote counters work 16-hour days “remaking” tens of thousands

...San Francisco’s ranked-choice voting system has always created problems when voters leave a choice blank. The machine spits the ballot back out and elections workers count the ballot by hand. Arnzt calls that an undervote.

This year, because undervotes are also caused by marking ballots with an inappropriate pen, Secretary of State Debra Bowen is requiring San Francisco election workers to fill out or “remake” a replica ballot by using a leaded pen that can be recognized by an optical scanner.

Was There an Election?
11 Nov 2007 by Ray Lewis  
San Francisco is the northern hub of one of the world's most demanding arenas for success in leadership, so why did Gavin Newsom have no true competitors in his renewal bid as the city’s CEO? 

In 2003, Newsom was elected from a field of six candidates, all of whom had served at high levels of city government.  Newsom won a spirited run-off race by fewer than four percentage points.

This year Newsom was opposed by a homeless cab driver, a florist, a music professor, two bloggers, a nudist, a showman named “Chicken John,” and a sex club owner, according to Wednesday’s edition of SF Gate...

Ranked-Choice Voting and Flawed Ballots Tax San Francisco's Election
VoteTrustUSA, CA - Nov 9, 2007
 Rules requiring hand-inspection, confusion over ranking could delay results for weeks. By
Kat Zambon Nov 08, 2007
  • "Voters also questioned the value of ranked-choice voting."
  • "There are a lot of people who only mark one [candidate] or the same person three times,"
  • "I don't want to vote for a second one, I want this one."
In S.F., Prop. A pulls ahead; E and F too close to call; H failing John Wildermuth, San Francisco Chronicle, 11/09/07  San Francisco's vote count is going faster than predicted, but state-ordered restrictions on the city's aging voting machines are still playing havoc with the tally in the mayor's race. "We're ahead of what we projected," said John Arntz, the city's
San Francisco Declares Voting Machine Maker in Breach of Contract
KCBS, CA - Nov 7, 2007
The ESS machines were not properly equipped to handle ranked choice voting, and so far have rejected 94 percent of the ballots cast, requiring manual processing, said Elections Director John Arntz....
San Francisco seeks reimbursement for election problems
San Francisco Chronicle,  USA - Nov 7, 2007
By RACHEL KONRAD, AP Writer San Francisco wants the nation's largest elections systems vendor to reimburse the city because of problems during Tuesday's
For 94 % of absentee ballots, voters did not make 3 choices:
Counting S.F. ballots will take a record amount of time John Wildermuth, San Francisco Chronicle, 11/06/07  San Francisco's election for mayor went surprisingly smoothly Tuesday, if you don't count the two weeks or more it's likely to take to tally all the ballots and come up with a final result...And because an astounding 94 percent of the absentee ballots processed by Monday had to be remade because voters didn't list three choices for mayor, it has taken a lot of time.
Election Day 2007
6 Nov 2007 by Rob  
Not to denigrate the candidates, but I really doubt that any of the “alternate” candidates are capable of running a city the size of San Francisco. What would any of the alternate candidates do if they actually won the election?
Record-low voter turnout predicted for San Francisco election
San Jose Mercury News,  USA - Nov 5, 2007
Political operatives predict turnout for this year's election could dip as low as 25 percent. By comparison, more than 74 percent of eligible San Francisco ...

Big drop in S.F. voters may lead to record-low election turnout   John Wildermuth, San Francisco Chronicle, 11/05/07 Tuesday's mayoral election may draw a record-low turnout because there are fewer voters out there to draw from. The number of registered voters in the city has fallen by more than 9 percent since the 2003 election. Observers blame everything from a...

The mayoral campaign that hardly was, winds down in S.F. Cecilia M. Vega, San Francisco Chronicle, 11/04/07 On the final Saturday before election day in San Francisco, it almost- for a brief moment anyway - felt like there was a real race under way. James Brown's "Living in America" blared at Mayor Gavin Newsom's re-election campaign headquarters. The incumbent...

$12.6 million contract for new S.F. voting system is revived John Wildermuth, San Francisco Chronicle, 11/02/07            A $12.6 million contract to bring a new voting system to San Francisco is back from the dead, nearly nine months after a Board of Supervisors committee refused to bring it to a vote. Although nothing has changed in the proposal, new negotiations - and the

John Wildermuth, San Francisco Chronicle, 10/22/07
It was another cold and lonely Friday evening for the candidates looking to be San Francisco's next mayor. With a chilly wind swirling across Civic Center Plaza, seven of the 11 people challenging Mayor Gavin Newsom joined again outside City Hall and tried...

S.F. supervisors blamed for blocking new voting system

John Wildermuth, Chronicle Staff Writer

Friday, September 21, 2007

If it takes three weeks to count the votes in this November's election, the Board of Supervisors should bear the blame, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom said Thursday... 

… The tough restrictions put on the use of the company's voting system in San Francisco are borderline ridiculous given how few people are likely to run into the problems with the ink, said Steven Hill, director of the political reform program of the New America Foundation.

"We're talking about people who drop the pen they're given in the voting booth, don't pick up the pen and then grab another pen without black ink," he said. "That's a pretty small group."

Bowen "is basically throwing the book at ES&S, but it's the city that's bearing the brunt of it," Hill said.

Note this comment to the article in response to Steven Hill's remarks: With the ES&S Optech Eagle system ballots marked with lighter ink can be mis-read by the scanner. Mr. Hill should consider that people who want to cause problems with other voters' ballots can and will switch the pens on purpose, even leaving behind pens that look exactly like the "official" Eagle compatible pens? Should we assume that Mr. Hill is as unaware and foolish as the voters he laughs off, or is he purposely trying to disguise the real and relevant bad marker security threat that comes from cutting corners by using obsolete optical scanner heads? ....

S.F. election outcome won't be known for weeks

John Wildermuth, San Francisco Chronicle, 09/19/07

San Francisco's election night will end early on Nov. 6, but thanks to a new ruling by Secretary of State Debra Bowen, it could be weeks before voters know who won. "We'll probably be able to release the absentee ballot results at 8:30 p.m., and then...

When Newsom gets a free pass for 4 more years, nobody wins

C.W. Nevius, San Francisco Chronicle, 09/06/07

It is the week after Labor Day, the traditional start of the election season. Except in San Francisco. We're not having an election. Instead we're awarding the mayor's office to incumbent Gavin Newsom by default. The filing date to run for mayor came and...

No one is running against S.F. district attorney in fall election

Demian Bulwa, San Francisco Chronicle, 08/16/07

San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris collected more than $500,000 from donors for her re-election effort, lined up high-profile endorsements and launched a campaign Web site. Then the clock at the Department of Elections struck 5 p.m. ... Jim Ross, a political consultant who ran Newsom's 2003 campaign, said ranked-choice balloting might have discouraged challengers to Harris. Promoted by its advocates as a boon to underfunded candidates hoping to avoid a costly runoff, ranked-choice voting actually strengthens incumbents, Ross said.
Voters pay less attention to second and third selections than the top slot and often leave them blank, Ross said. The resulting under-vote means incumbents can prevail with less than the 50 percent-plus-one that they once needed to avoid a runoff.

SAN FRANCISCO - Officials scurry to find solution to longtime vote machine problem

John Wildermuth, San Francisco Chronicle, 07/25/07

Election officials in San Francisco and Sacramento are scrambling to find a way to keep the city from having to count more than 200,000 ballots by hand this November, a nightmare process that could drag on for weeks. California Secretary of State Debra...

Now, how did this guy get elected?

John Diaz, San Francisco Chronicle, 06/10/07

IN RECENT years, San Francisco voters have set up systems promising to encourage the election of citizen-politicians from the neighborhoods and to raise voter participation and the prospects that our elected leaders arrive in office with a "mandate." So...

SAN FRANCISCO - Newsom faces few hurdles to re-election - Mayor hard to beat: Setbacks can't seem to dim his luster

Phillip Matier, San Francisco Chronicle, 06/03/07

Despite the personal scandals, infighting with the Board of Supervisors and criticism that his administration is all show, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom has three very big numbers in his back pocket that will make unseating him one of the toughest...

Supervisor's plans marred by threat of fall from grace

John Wildermuth, San Francisco Chronicle, 05/27/07

When Ed Jew won his nail-biter of an election for San Francisco's Board of Supervisors in November, it capped a decadelong effort by the Chinatown florist to become a major player in the hurly-burly world of the city's ethnic politics. Less than six months...

SAN FRANCISCO - Questions mount for Sunset supervisor

Wyatt Buchanan, San Francisco Chronicle, 05/20/07

San Francisco Supervisor Ed Jew, the target of an FBI investigation into $40,000 he said he accepted from businessmen facing city permit problems, received a vote of confidence Saturday from supporters who say he is a man of character. But within hours of...

SAN FRANCISCO - Vote machines subpar, official warns - Ink scanners faulty -- ballot tally may have to be by hand

Wyatt Buchanan, San Francisco Chronicle, 05/18/07

San Francisco's chief of elections has warned city officials that ballots cast in the November election may have to be counted by hand because voting machines do not meet standards set by California's secretary of state. In a letter to the mayor and Board...

SAN FRANCISCO / Supes want to know how voting machines count ...


Most of San Francisco's current voting machines use an optical scan to read ... The city's Department of Elections negotiated a contract with Sequoia in ...

Runoff rule, fund limits add twist to S.F. election - Despite scandal, Newsom could benefit from changes

Heather Knight, San Francisco Chronicle, 02/10/07

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom's self-inflicted political wounds might draw more challengers into November's mayoral race, but the city's new public financing program and instant runoff voting are likely to have more effect on who gets in and when -- and...  

S.F. supes: Ed Jew in District 4; Daly slips in - Second-choice votes boost Sunset activist over initial leader

Charlie Goodyear, San Francisco Chronicle, 11/11/06

Ed Jew, a neighborhood activist whose door-to-door campaigning proved persuasive to voters, came from behind to win a closely fought race for supervisor in San Francisco's Sunset District, according to updated election results released Friday. Jew secured...

RCV Results Posted

Eve Batey, SF Gate, 11/10/06

The San Francisco Board of Elections has posted the ranked choice voting results for Districts Four and Six (Districts Two, Eight, and 10 had clear majority leaders, thus going to RCV was unnecessary). And the leaders? In District Four, Ed Jew. Charlie...

ELECTION 2006 - Ranked-choice tally is crucial in district four

Charlie Goodyear, San Francisco Chronicle, 11/09/06

San Francisco's biggest electoral surprise in the race for supervisor in District Four on Tuesday was the poor showing by Doug Chan, a candidate who raised a large amount of cash and enjoyed Mayor Gavin Newsom's support but failed to connect with voters.

Uncounted Ballots in SF Unlikely to Change a Thing

Chuck Finnie, SF Gate, 11/08/06

SF elections chief John Arntz tells The Chronicle's Robert Selna that there are 69,300 city ballots that still need to be counted as of today -- 60,000 of which mostly are of the absentee variety delivered by voters to polling stations on election day and...

Bay Area prefers status quo

Erin Allday, San Francisco Chronicle, 11/07/06

Political change swept the nation Tuesday but skipped the Bay Area, where Democrats were already the status quo. Three of the four San Francisco Board of Supervisors incumbents handily won their races, and the fourth, Chris Daly in District 6, had a...

CAMPAIGN 2006: 5 Days to Go - Results in S.F. supes' races might lag

Charlie Goodyear, San Francisco Chronicle, 11/02/06

Definitive results in San Francisco supervisor races might not be available for several days after next Tuesday's election if officials are forced to retabulate thousands of ballots to determine winners under the city's ranked-choice voting system. John...

VOTER'S GUIDE TO THE NOV. 7 ELECTION - San Francisco Board of Supervisors

San Francisco Chronicle, 10/29/06

There are elections in five of San Francisco's supervisorial districts, with incumbents seeking re-election in Districts Two, Six, Eight and 10 and one race for an open seat in District Four. Under the city's election system for local races, voters rank...

Four supervisors, at least 31 foes to face off    July 25, 2006

SAN FRANCISCO  - Five seats, mayor’s coalition on the line; ranked-choice voting gives incumbents lift

Ranked-choice voting gives incumbents a “tremendous advantage,” according to San Francisco-based political consultant Eric Jaye. A challenger can get more votes than the incumbent, but if the seated official gets more second- and third-rank votes, they can still win the race. 

“[Before ranked-choice voting,] all you had to do is push an incumbent into a runoff, then you’d have equality,” Jaye said. “Now, you don’t just have to make the incumbent the second choice, you have to make them the fourth choice.”  

Which is why political pundits say one of the main races to watch is the one with no incumbent. In District 4, Fiona Ma, who won the Democratic nomination in the 12th Assembly District last month, is vacating the board.

Elections officer approves Sequoia voting machines Oakland Tribune ...


Elections officer approves Sequoia voting machines from Oakland Tribune in Array ... But it is likely Santa Clara and San Francisco counties will have the ...

2007. IRV software relies upon complex algorithms that could be faulty without anyone realizing it.  San Francisco used software that had a flawed algorithm for several years before it was detected by a review of the voting machines:

California's former SOS McPherson letter to the Board of Supervisors describes the anomaly in the RCV algorithm,in a report dated June 20, 2007. .The Secretary of State’s staff report from 2006 explains the issues experienced during testing which caused Secretary McPherson to approve one-time use of the system. Some of these issues are noted below:

...An anomaly in the RCV algorithm concerning the elimination of the lowest ranking candidates who are tied.

Sunday, January 09, 2005. Programming problems. 
Despite promise, ranked-choice voting gets fouled up in California. Ranked-choice voting is the only sane voting system around: it's an instant runoff election that opens up the possibility of third-party competition for major elections.
Unfortunately, in an example that proves bureaucrats hardly ever have the brains to do anything right, the San Francisco Department of Elections muffed this one up. Apparently, their programmers forgot how to count. Someone needs to teach them the old "fingers and toes" method, apparently. News Target article   
December 31, 2004 Claims of minority disenfranchisement:
But David Lee from the Chinese American Voter Education Committee argues that the system disenfranchised minority voters. The organization released a poll saying that only 49 percent of Chinese-speaking voters found the system "easy to use."  San Francisco Examiner article  
November 16, 2004  Don't Toss Out System Yet - Leader of Voter Ed Group suggests scrapping ranked choice voting:
LAST WEEK, THE head of a San Francisco voter-education group said he was considering options including working to repeal The City's new ranked-choice voting system   because the system was too difficult for Chinese-speaking voters.
In RCV -- used to select city supervisors for the first time Nov. 2 --
voters may list three candidates for supervisor in order of preference,eliminating the need for a separate runoff election.
The Chinese American Voter Education Committee's interest in educating and protecting voters whose first language is not English is well placed.  These voters are as important as any others, and making sure they understand their rights and the mechanisms by which they cast their votes is a good goal. Unfortunately, when it comes to the idea of potentially filing suit or attempting to repeal ranked-choice voting at the ballot box CAVEC's aim is off the mark and premature. The Examiner: Article
November 11, 2004 Voting Group says IRV esp difficult for minority group. 
A voter education group charged Wednesday that The City's new voting system was especially difficult for Chinese-speaking citizens but concluded it may take more than one election to see if those citizens are being disenfranchised. San Francisco Examiner article
November 4, 2004. Machines fail to count votes correctly for second and third votes.
Ranked-choice results delayed due to glitches.
The voting system had cleared state and federal testing, and Arntz said the failure to get a proper tally of second and third votes was a surprise.
"I think we can fix this," Arntz said. "A hand count is something I really don't want to do..."
Lillian Sing, who came in second in District 1, said the delay leads her to question the count.
"The system is completely untrustworthy and therefore nothing is accurate as far as I'm concerned,"  she said...
"The department also has yet to count and release tallies for as many as 60,000 absentee and provisional ballots from Tuesday's election. Arntz said he plans to release those tallies
daily over the next two weeks, and that he's confident the ranked-choice result will be complete and accurate before the statutory deadline at the end of the month."
San Francisco Examiner article 

Take a look at some of the findings in these studies of San Francisco’s 2004 & 2005 IRV election, conducted by the Public Research Institute at San Francisco State University:

An Assessment of Ranked-Choice Voting in the San Francisco 2004 Election


The majority of voters appear to have made the transition to Ranked-Choice Voting with little problem: about seven out of eight we surveyed said that, overall, they understood it "fairly well" or "perfectly well." However, that leaves one in eight who expressed some lack of understanding.

…We found differences across racial and ethnic groups in regard to their prior knowledge of RCV, their overall understanding, and their propensity to rank candidates on the ballot.

Non-Hispanic Whites and Asian Americans came to the polls more aware of RCV than others. Whites and Asians also reported a higher level of overall understanding than other groups.

African Americans reported less understanding than other racial/ethnic groups, a difference that grows once other influences are considered.

2005 was worse for voters than 2004:

An Assessment of Ranked-Choice Voting in the San Francisco 2005 Election

IRV was re-named Ranked-Choice Voting because it can take days or weeks to get the results.

Prior Knowledge of Ranked-Choice Voting (RCV)

- A narrow majority of voters surveyed (54%) knew before voting that they would be asked to rank candidates for City Treasurer and Assessor in the 2005 election.

- The proportion of voters who had prior knowledge of RCV was lower in 2005 (54%) than in the 2004 election for the Board of Supervisors (67%).

- Those with lower rates of prior knowledge tended to be those who were less educated, reported having lower incomes, and spoke a primary language other than Spanish.

- African Americans were considerably less likely than other racial and ethnic groups (41.9%) to know they would be ranking their choices for these offices.

-The majority of voters reported ranking three candidates in the race for City Treasurer (57%), while 33% reported selecting only one candidate.*

*That means that in the event the first choice does not win, 33% do not participate in the "run-off".

See this analysis of "Spoilage and Error Rates with Range Voting versus other Voting Systems" from  Valid votes, overvotes and undervotes (also known as DROP-OFF) in IRV races:
Overvote means a voter selected two or more candidates for the same office. Undervote/drop-off means voter selected no candidate for that race. In either IRV or plurality voting, undervoting has the same effect as not voting at all in that race.

So from this we see that the overvote error rates in San Francisco ranged from 3 to 11 times higher with IRV than with plurality voting, typically 7 times higher. (If double-ranking a non-top candidate in IRV were also considered – we haven't – then IRV overvote error rates would have been even higher.) And this conclusion is fully statistically significant.

Meanwhile, the undervotes and dropoffs probably mostly were "intentional" rather than "errors," but anyhow were comparable for both Plurality and IRV.


2004. Touch screens were recommended to San Francisco:  From the San Francisco Dept of Elections report on IRV in 2004.  ES&S realized that its current paper ballot system could not provide voters the opportunity to rank all candidates that qualified for the ballot. For instance, if 22 candidates qualified for one contest, the system could not accommodate voters making 22 selections in order of their preference among the candidates. Touch-screen systems could most likely accommodate the ranking of all candidates.... For absentee voting, however, the formatting for the paper ballots for the current optical scan system limits the number of choices. The RCV Charter amendment allows for voters to have no less than three selections for an RCV contest if it is not technically feasible for the system to allow for voters to rank all of the candidates on the ballot. Thus, the City agreed to have its system modified to allow voters three rankings among the qualified candidates appearing on the RCV ballot.

2003. The Los Angeles Voter Empowerment Circle recommended touch screen voting machines for IRV  to the state of California in 2003: "touch screen machines for DRE systems are also better able to ccommodate alternative voting methods such as Instant Runoff Voting.  We therefore believe that DRE systems are preferable to paper-based systems, such as punch cards or optical scans. 

Lawsuit to Seek IRV in San Francisco in 2003   (from FairVote website) On August 11, 2003, a diverse coalition of citizen groups and San Francisco voters -- including the Congress of California Seniors, Chinese Progressive Association, San Francisco Labor Council, AFL-CIO, California PIRG, Center for Voting and Democracy, Enrique Asis, Gwenn Craig, Arthur Chang, and Tracy Baxter - filed a lawsuit on August 11, 2003 in State Superior Court against the SF Elections Commission, Department of Elections, and the Director of Elections for failure to implement the law of San Francisco which mandates instant runoff voting.

The Real Story: Seventeen Months of Fumbling and Bumbling by the SF Department of Elections and Elections Commission   Timlines, actions, inaction and poor decisions related to IRV implementation    *FairVote attacks election officials for not being able to easily implement IRV. Also FairVote pushes against election transparency and promotes both central counting of the votes or touchscreen voting machines just so that IRV can quickly be implemented.