FROM:   Kim Alexander, CVF President
DATE:   December 10, 2001
RE:   San Francisco elections saga

Hi Folks,

The San Francisco Elections Department has been in the news in recent weeks due to a variety of bizarre occurrences and serious election irregularities discovered in the aftermath of the city's recent municipal election, held on November 6th. The story has unfolded day by day, and includes so many twists and turns it's starting to sound like a work of fiction, but it is unfortunately the reality of democracy in San Francisco.

It has been discouraging to hear San Francisco's and others' election problems described in news headlines as "glitches", "mishaps" and "snafus". Such characterizations trivialize the democratic process and are insulting to voters. To help sort out the confusion and encourage more careful scrutiny, we've put together a synopsis of what's been happening in San Francisco to date, which includes links to news stories and other information providing more details, along with a few of my personal observations.

As always, your comments are welcome.

-- Kim Alexander, President
California Voter Foundation, (916) 452-7706,

* * * * * * * * *
San Francisco Elections Saga

On November 6, 134,000 San Francisco voters participated in a municipal election. The ballot included two hotly-contested propositions to create a public power authority. Props F and I were opposed by Pacific Gas & Electric, which spent over $1 million against the measures. Both measures were narrowly defeated. According to the San Francisco Elections Department, Prop. F was defeated by just a few hundred votes, with 64,403 votes cast in favor, and 64,918 against the measure.

The results of the election are being called into question for several reasons, including the discovery after the vote count of eight ballot box lids floating in San Francisco Bay. Questions arose immediately when the Elections Department moved thousands of provisional and absentee ballots from City Hall on Election Night due to anthrax fears. The ballots were instead processed at Pier 29 and Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. Critics
questioned whether the votes were properly guarded to prevent tampering during transport. (See the SF Chronicle's Nov. 10th story for more details -, also the Nov. 8 SF Chron column by Matier/Ross,

Then on Nov. 21, Secretary of State Bill Jones released the results of his office's six-month investigation into alleged ballot counting problems during San Francisco's November and December 2000 elections. Jones' investigation was prompted by allegations made by a former head of the Elections Department, one of five who has served in the past five years.

The Secretary of State selected 21 of San Francisco's 648 precincts at random and found an 8.8 percent variance between the numbers of ballots issued to voters and the number of ballots available to be inspected. In some precincts the number of physical ballots produced by the Elections Department was lower than the number of ballots shown as cast in the certified Statement of Vote; in other precincts the number of physical ballots produced was higher than the number showing in the Statement of Vote.

In all, Jones' investigators found 705 discrepancies, or an average variance of 8.8 percent, between the number of ballots issued to voters and the number of ballots available to be inspected in the fraction of precincts his office investigated. Jones reported that if there were similar findings in all 648 precincts, "the discrepancies may be large enough to affect the results of several contests." Jones said he does not have "sufficient evidence to determine whether the discrepancies are the result of intentional violations of the law or whether they are the result of gross record keeping errors at the Department of Elections" but that either way "the results are unacceptable".

Jones praised the current supervisor of San Francisco's Elections Department, Tammy Haygood, for offering to conduct a complete public re-canvass of the vote for the November and December 2000 elections. Jones also said his office investigated complaints about the most recent election regarding the way the absentee ballots were handled, and "determined that the Department of Elections was in full compliance with state and local laws regarding ballot security and public access to the observation of ballot processing." (To read Jones' complete remarks and full report, visit

The following week, on Nov. 27, the San Jose Mercury News reported that the U.S. Coast Guard, while conducting a security sweep, discovered eight ballot box lids floating in the San Francisco Bay. Haygood explained that the box lids, some of which were found near Pier 39, had been washed at Pier 29 and left to dry outside, and assured the public that all of the ballots had been removed from the boxes. "Washing the boxes? Leaving them on the dock? Even if that's true, it still requires a suspension of belief," said Supervisor Tom Ammiano, who sponsored one of the two public power measures. "For all I know, public power is sitting at the bottom of the bay.'' (For more details, see the archived news story at

Two days later, on Nov. 29, news organizations reported that the Elections Department discovered 240 marked ballots inside voting machine storage bins during the department's canvassing of the election, which is a process election departments go through after the election to account for all the ballots issued and determine the final, certified results. The department said the ballots would be counted, but they would not impact the results of the election (For more details, see the archived news story at

On Dec. 3, it was reported that 400 blank ballots had been turned over to the Elections Department by a pollworker/precinct supervisor who had been fired on Election Day. The man returned the ballots after being visited by sheriffs' deputies. It is not clear whether the pollworker may have taken more ballots than he returned. However, since ballots are marked by precinct, Haygood has assured the public that no one outside the designated precinct could use them to vote. (For more details, see the archived news story at and

Most recently, San Francisco's Board of Supervisors refused to approve the $870,000 Haygood requested to fund the full recanvassing of the November and December 2000 ballots, despite Haygood's commitment to Secretary of State Bill Jones that such a recanvassing would be carried out. The city controller, Ed Harrington, questioned the methodology of the Secretary of State's investigation, but Jones' spokesman Alfie Charles stood by their findings. (For more details, see the Dec. 6th story in the SF Chronicle, ).

It is not news that San Francisco's Elections Department is in need of attention and accountability. San Francisco has experienced a string of election problems and scandals over the past six years, including offering "early voting" in selective precincts during a hotly-disputed 1997 stadium vote. (See this Nov. 8 SF Chronicle story for a history of the city's election problems,

Another possible explanation for San Francisco's problems lies in its unique formation as both a city and a county. Elections in California are administered at the county level, and in the 57 other counties in the state the election supervisor is accountable directly to the board of supervisors or, in a few counties, is elected by the voters. However, in San Francisco, the election supervisor is appointed and supervised by the city administrator, who is an appointee of the mayor. (To learn more about SF City Administrator Bill Lee, see the SF Chronicle's Nov. 30th article,

This situation is now changing. Because of ongoing election problems, voters approved an election reform measure, Proposition E, which was placed on the ballot by the Board of Supervisors and establishes a new, seven member Elections Commission in charge of running the Elections Department and hiring its supervisor. Commissioners are to take office in January, and will be appointed by various elected city officials. Prop E also mandates that sheriff's deputies escort ballots as they are moved on Election Day. (For more details, see the SF Chronicle's Nov. 16 story

The chronic problems with San Francisco elections highlight how complex our election process has become, and why it is essential to have a transparent election process run by competent and trustworthy election officials. The problems are also leading observers to question whether the Elections Department is being deliberately mismanaged for the purpose of manipulating election outcomes. Public power proponents have not yet conceded defeat on Measure F, and are calling on California Attorney General Bill Lockyer to investigate the election (see for more information).

Whether it is malfeasance or incompetence, San Franciscans deserve better than this. Hopefully San Francisco's new election commission will turn things around and restore the faith of the good people of San Francisco in the democratic voting process.

-- Kim Alexander, California Voter Foundation, (916) 452-7706,

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This page was first published on December 10, 2001 | Last updated on December 10, 2001
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