SAN FRANCISCO -- An odd twist in the last-minute write-in campaign by Supervisor Tom Ammiano has done more than slow the ballot count in the San Francisco's contentious mayoral race -- it has called into question the very validity of the city's election process.
San Francisco voters hit the polls en masse Tuesday, and the above-average turnout may have been the result of a controversial get-out-the-vote effort launched by grass-roots supporters of Ammiano, the gay stand-up comic who currently serves as the president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. The high turnout, focused in the Castro and other Ammiano electoral strongholds, could translate into a spot for the leftist candidate in the Dec. 14 runoff election.
That is, if the Department of Elections decides to count a significant and unusual portion of the "write-in" vote.
Go Tom Go, the ad hoc committee formed to catalyze Ammiano's last-minute campaign, had pinned part of its hopes on an innovative strategy: the use of rubber stamps. The organizers' plan -- supplying voters with custom-made rubber stamps to help them "write in" Tom Ammiano for mayor -- may have gotten their man elected. Or it may have made all those stamped write-in votes count for naught.
Ammiano had declined to enter the mayoral race at the August filing deadline to be on the November ballot, citing the difficulties of competing against the sizable war chests of the other candidates. But in a stunning turnabout, Ammiano announced in October that he would join the fray as a write-in candidate. Opponents who at first thought Ammiano was simply testing the waters for a future mayoral bid are now fuming at the prospect that the rubber-stamp vote may have gained Ammiano a space in the upcoming runoff election.
"While the law allows flexibility in counting write-ins, we feel that the voter, and not a rubber stamp, should make their intention clear," says Clint Reilly's spokesman, Tom Pier.
Ammiano supporters disagreed. "It's hard enough to get people to vote, let alone write down someone's name," explains Ben Walters, an Ammiano backer who worked the polls in the city's southern districts. "And for the record, we also handed out pens."
George Madrazo, spokesperson for the San Francisco Department of Elections, says use of the rubber stamps has raised a fundamental question. "If a rubber stamp is used, the name is not technically written on the ballot," he notes. The Department of Elections faced criticism before the election when it announced that ballots with "Ammiano" and not "Mayor Tom Ammiano" would be accepted; the department is struggling with a decision on whether the rubber-stamped ballots will be counted, Madrazo says, but the rubber-stamp controversy involves more than mere abbreviation. "'Rubber-stamping' suggests approving something without considering it," says Madrazo. "Frankly, we have concerns that the voting process, which is a very personal thing, has become unduly impersonal and coerced."
Actually, the term "write-in ballot" itself is bit of a misnomer in San Francisco. According to county election law, write-in candidates are required to file papers with the city to establish eligibility for election. Only ballots inscribed with the names of declared candidates are counted in official election tallies. If an undeclared candidate is written in for mayor, the vote is null and void.
Neither Mayor Willie Brown nor his primary support group, the Campaign to Re-elect the Mayor, has issued an official statement on Ammiano's rubber-stamp tactics.
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