Secretary of State Bill Jones said Wednesday that a six-month probe of alleged misconduct by voting officials has uncovered "significant and substantial irregularities" in last year's ballot count by the city's beleaguered Department of Elections.
The state's top elections official stopped short of calling the discrepancies fraud, but described them as the most serious he has ever seen.
The inquiry found that all of the 21 precincts sampled by investigators contained ballots that were tabulated improperly, a result that Jones--who is running for governor--called "disturbing."
The ballots reviewed by investigators could suggest a problem "large enough to affect the results of several contests," Jones said.
"I cannot overemphasize my concern for these findings," he told a packed City Hall news conference. "Whether the findings of this report are the results of election fraud or a poor administrative oversight, the result is unacceptable in either case."
Tammy Haygood, the city's new elections chief, announced that her department will re-canvass each of the 324,000 votes cast during the November 2000 election and a December runoff.
The unusual measure, in which workers compare the number of votes cast with those registered by election officials, will take place within the next month and would be overseen by citizen volunteers and personnel from the secretary of state's office.
"In an effort to give credibility back to this department, this is a task we must undertake and we must do it with community effort and wholeheartedly," she said.
San Francisco has a history of troubled elections. Since he took office in 1995, Jones said, his office has intervened or provided assistance to the city Department of Elections in six of seven years.
As a remedy, he called for the Department of Elections to create a committee of voter registrars from throughout the state to suggest ways to improve accuracy.
That did not pacify suspicious San Francisco supervisors, many of whom have criticized the Department of Elections. Some have accused the department of vote tampering and misappropriation.
Federal Review May Be Sought
Despite investigations by numerous state and local agencies including the state attorney general's office, the district attorney and the San Francisco city attorney, Supervisor Tony Hall has said he may ask for a federal review.
"This is a joke, an absolute joke," Hall said after the news conference. "It's just another attempt to try and manipulate the will of the people. That's all it is. They couldn't do it the first time, so they're coming back again."
Hall, the coauthor of Proposition E, passed by voters this fall to create a seven-member panel of elected officials to oversee future vote counts, said the irregularities are the result of "machine politics"--a swipe at Mayor Willie Brown. Hall narrowly defeated a Brown-backed candidate last fall and has suggested that the alleged disappearance of several thousand pro-Hall ballots were the mayor's doing.
Brown spokesman P.J. Johnston said that any assumption by supervisors that the mayor calls the shots at the Department of Elections is wrong.
City Administrator Bill Lee, who has chosen the past few elections' directors including Haygood, was reappointed by Brown and confirmed by the Board of Supervisors, Johnston said.
"Mayor Brown knows better than to try and run an elections department in the county where he's an elected official," Johnston said. "Bill Lee doesn't answer to Mayor Brown and can't be fired by him. And to suggest that the mayor had anything to gain by some of these voting irregularities is simply ridiculous."
Brown, who attended the news conference, did not comment publicly, but he briefly delayed the proceedings when he left early and was trailed by half a dozen television cameras.
Jones said he hopes that a committee of statewide registrars can help San Francisco create a model that will give future vote counts "the stability, effectiveness and independence from political influence that people of this community deserve."
In the precinct sampling, state investigators identified 705 discrepancies between the number of ballots collected and the number reported by election officials.
"The count of the ballot cards in each of the precincts we reviewed simply did not match up to the numbers reported by the county," Jones said.
The average discrepancy between the official ballot count reported by San Francisco officials and those counted by investigators was 8.8% per precinct, Jones said.
If the sample findings were applied to all 647 precincts in San Francisco, "the discrepancies may be large enough to affect the results of several contests held during the November 2000 election," he said.
Officials would not predict whether their reevaluation could result in a recount of votes on that ballot, which included several key measures on city growth and numerous Board of Supervisors races.
Jones said it is too early to say whether any results will be overturned. "There's always the final decision by the parties if they choose to raise issues in court at a later date," he said.
Complaint Alleged 3,600 Votes Missing
The state's investigation began in May after a San Francisco elections official complained that about 3,600 votes were unaccounted for and that officials knew the count was inaccurate when they certified the vote.
Jones said the investigation showed that San Francisco elections officials broke no laws last year when, following an anthrax threat, workers removed some absentee ballots from City Hall to another location for counting.
Supporters of a narrowly defeated public power measure had raised the possibility of ballot tampering because there were reportedly no sheriff's deputies on hand to supervise the removal of the absentee ballots from City Hall.
Supervisor Mark Leno on Wednesday questioned the thoroughness of the secretary of state's office, which certifies the result of each election.
"The state is supposed to come in and finalize the results--and just look at the erroneous results on which it passed muster," he said. "Is this process just a rubber stamp? What does it say about the state's involvement in the vote certification?"
Earlier, Jones had dismissed the suggestion that the state played a role in the vote-counting discrepancies. "The law is not set up for the secretary of state to run the election or to count the ballots," he said.
"The counties do that. They're the extension of the state government. Counting the votes is their responsibility."