San Francisco's New Election System Runs Into an Obstacle
By DEAN E. MURPHY Published: October 17, 2004
AN FRANCISCO, Oct. 16 - San Francisco's introduction in November of a new municipal election system known as instant runoff voting has hit an unexpected snag with the city's Ethics Commission.
One of the most noted byproducts of the unusual system - cooperation among rival candidates in races for the Board of Supervisors - might be in violation of city and state campaign finance laws. The commission is scheduled to consider the matter on Monday in response to queries from several campaigns worried about the political fallout of possible ethics charges
"It is important that we start discussing it and decide how we would like to interpret the law," said Mabel Ng, the commission's deputy executive director. "This is the first time this has come up."
Under instant runoff voting, voters are asked to rank their top three choices for an office. If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote, the second and possibly third choices are counted until one candidate receives a majority. The system eliminates the need for a separate runoff election.
With the instant runoff in mind, some of the 65 candidates have been identifying their preferences for the second and third slots in their races. Rivals have also held joint fund-raisers, shared Web sites and printed campaign literature that identifies their ranked choices.
But several campaigns have been advised by the Ethics Commission staff that city and state laws appear to ban cooperation among candidates if it involves the expenditure of campaign funds. For example, a candidate can walk door to door with a rival and endorse the rival in conversations with voters, but the candidate cannot print and distribute literature that makes the same endorsement.
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. The Ethics Commission has ruled in the past that the purpose of the ban was "to ensure that campaign funds are spent only for the candidate to which the donors provided the funds."
Greg Dewar, a consultant for Susan King, one of the candidates in District 5, said Ms. King wanted to list a rival, Ross Mirkarimi, in a campaign pamphlet as her second choice. But when Mr. Dewar contacted the Ethics Commission staff about the plan, he said, no one could say for sure if it was legal.
"The rules have not caught up with the election changes," Mr. Dewar said. "This was not quite thought out."
In nearby District 3, where three candidates have loosely joined forces, the campaigns have tried to avoid legal problems by dividing their joint expenses. But Chuck Thomas, who assists the campaign of one of the three, Eugene C. Wong, said the campaigns want an official ruling from the commission.
"We don't want to have this come back at us the day before the election and have ethics charges," Mr. Thomas said.
With the election fast approaching, Ms. Ng said that the commission would probably make an interim decision, but that the question would ultimately be settled by the state Fair Political Practices Commission.
A spokeswoman for the state commission, Sigrid Bathen, said the laws in question resulted from a statewide ballot measure that passed in 2000. Should the San Francisco candidates be found in violation, Ms. Bathen said, only a formal ruling by the state commission would exonerate them from prosecution.
Sign up to receive updates by email here: