SAN FRANCISCO — Several weeks after the November election, the Coast Guard fished eight ballot-box lids out of San Francisco Bay and 240 uncounted ballots were found stuck in voting machines — the latest embarrassments in the city’s sorry electoral history.
San Francisco has had persistent vote-counting problems and has gone through five election directors in the past six years. And the most recent foul-ups have left politicians and citizens angry and demanding reform.
“This election department and the people in charge of it are making San Francisco the biggest laughingstock this side of Florida,” said Aaron Peskin, a member of the city Board of Supervisors. “Heads should roll!”
City officials hope to avoid more trouble in Tuesday’s runoff for city attorney — a relatively simple vote to count, since there are only two candidates. Still, state fraud investigators will be watching closely.
But longer-term change may be on the way: In a little-noticed measure on November’s ballot, voters overwhelmingly approved creation of a seven-member commission to run the elections department and to hire a director.
The most controversial question voters faced on Nov. 6 was a measure to seize Pacific Gas & Electric Co.’s power lines and provide power directly to the public. It led on Election Day, but lost after all the absentee ballots were counted five days after the polls closed.
Three weeks later — a few days after the lids were found floating in the bay — PG&E’s lead narrowed again, to just 515 votes, after the uncounted ballots were discovered stuck in machines.
Elections Director Tammy Haygood finally certified the election last week — the day after 400 blank ballots were discovered at a former poll worker’s house in yet another embarrassing episode.
Confidence in the results had not been high from the start. On Election Night, some 5,500 absentee ballots were secretly moved to a loosely guarded room in an auditorium. Haygood said she had them moved because of anthrax fears.
It was the absentee ballots that ultimately swung the vote in the favor of PG&E, whose parent company spent more than $1 million against the public power initiative.
An investigation by Secretary of State Bill Jones found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing in the moving of the absentee ballots. Still, city supervisors continue to question the string of events.
“It’s destroying voter confidence. I don’t know if it can destroy it anymore,” said Supervisor Tony Hall, who went through a runoff and three recounts before winning his seat last year. “It’s the machine. The political machine that’s been running this town for years.”
In 1995, thousands of people received the wrong absentee ballots and may have voted incorrectly. In other elections, vote-counters had to dry wet ballots in a microwave, and the city was sued for not printing candidates’ names on the ballots in Chinese.
Haygood, who was hired despite having no previous election experience, said that the floating lids blew off a city pier in a stiff wind and that no ballots went with them. Haygood also said there was no tampering with the absentee ballots she moved on Election Night, but critics say they cannot be sure.
“There were no guards, only a private rent-a-guard at the door,” said Richard Shadoian, a member of the Citizens Advisory Committee on Elections. “We were not allowed to stay as long as we wanted to. We were told that, ‘Willie ordered it moved’ and we were rushed out of there.”
Haygood has denied any conspiracy and said Mayor Willie Brown wasn’t told of her plans to move the ballots.
Brown has sought to distance himself from the controversy, saying: “I’m not in charge of the election. I’m not sure there’s a lack of voter confidence as much as a lack of confidence in the press.”
But last year he did reappoint City Administrator Bill Lee, who oversees the elections department and has hired the past five elections directors. Lee has been unapologetic in his few public comments since the election. He is considered an unmovable force because of his strong ties to the city’s politically powerful Chinese-American community.
The move to create a seven-member commission on elections could cut short the tenure of Haygood, who said she had no idea people would pay so much attention to the elections.
“If the day I was appointed I would have known the scrutiny the department was under,” she said, ” I would have done things differently.”
On the Net:
San Francisco Department of Elections: http://www.ci.sf.ca.us/election