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Task force asks for stadium-election docs

March 10, 1999
By Randall Lyman and Tali Woodward

The Sunshine Ordinance Task Force has asked the S.F. Department of Elections to release key documents that could account for the whereabouts of dozens of ballot boxes for several hours after the polls closed in the June 3, 1997, special election.

At a March 2 task force hearing to investigate a complaint that the DOE withheld the documents in violation of the city's open-government law, DOE director Naomi Nishioka told the task force she would undertake to locate the documents, of which some had been withheld and others had been described as nonexistent.

Comstock presented evidence that for up to four hours after the polls closed, DOE procedures for handling ballots and ballot boxes were lax and created opportunities for tampering with ballots.

The complaint, filed by Doug Comstock and the Committee to Stop the Giveaway, charged the DOE with election fraud related to Propositions D and F, which gave the green light to the controversial proposal for a football stadium and mall.

Both passed by fewer than 1,000 votes out of about 169,000 votes cast, amid allegations that the DOE and city officials manipulated the electoral process to ensure victory for the measures.

"Who had the voting materials for the three to four hours after the polls closed? I asked this question over and over," Comstock told the task force.

According to the complaint, the DOE said "traffic snarls due to rain" caused the delays -- despite the fact that it did not rain that night. The DOE also reported that the ballots in one box were found to be wet and had to be microwaved dry.

Comstock made several requests to the DOE for receipts documenting the delivery of all ballot boxes from the precincts to the DOE's central and satellite collection sites, the complaint states. Nishioka's predecessor, Germaine Wong, initially informed Comstock the receipts were being gathered; then Nishioka told him they could not be located, then that some could be located, he told the task force.

Eventually, he said, the DOE turned over receipts for 66 out of a total of 535 ballot boxes.

"This is either very shoddy bookkeeping or they're not being forthcoming," he said.

Nishioka told the task force that the DOE generally does not retain its portion of the two-part receipts, since delivery was documented by scanning the bar codes on each ballot box.

"If anything, we go overboard to protect ballot boxes. We're very careful about the chain of custody," she said.

Asked whether delivery information from the scans was available and would have fulfilled the request for delivery receipts, she replied, "I think so."

The task force also raised questions about payments made to nonprofit drug rehabilitation center Walden House, which is partially funded by the Mayor's Office of Housing, in connection with the delivery of ballot boxes. Brown was a vocal proponent of the two stadium measures.

On Aug. 5, 1997, Comstock requested documents "involving any nonprofit organization" involved in carrying out Election Day functions of the DOE. In a written response on Aug. 12 Wong replied, "We have no document that is responsive."

However, after disclosure of the 66 delivery receipts revealed that 56 people being rehabilitated at Walden House had delivered ballot boxes, Comstock specifically requested documents concerning the involvement of Walden House. Wong wrote back, "Documents regarding Walden House are available for your review."

The documents included checks payable to Walden House, not to the workers directly, raising suspicions of exploitation, Comstock said.

Nishioka told the task force that such a payment procedure was standard and that the money was channeled into individual accounts maintained by Walden House for its wards.

"We recruited workers at Walden House just like we recruit workers citywide," she said, adding that no correspondence existed between the DOE and Walden House to document their election work agreement. Comstock said he also requested evidence of any contract or agreement with the printing company that produced the ballots but that no such document has been provided.

"It seems easy enough to produce a contract with a printing firm. There had to be some kind of contract or memorandum of understanding," task force member Johnny Brannon said.

Naomi Nishioka responded that the DOE has had "an ongoing agreement" with a printing company, Sequoia, and that she did not know if it was in writing or which department had it. She said a request for proposals (RFP) had been issued for a ballot printer 5 to 10 years ago, but she did not know where that was either.

Asked by task force chair David Pilpel whether documents concerning the printer would be available if anyone requested them today, Nishioka replied, "Yes, I think they would have them now."

She assured the task force at the end of the hearing that she would attempt to locate the RFP and the printing contract.

Comstock and the Voting Integrity Project, a nationwide election watchdog organization, are locked in a legal dispute with the city and the 49ers over charges that the DOE committed voter fraud in connection with the June 1997 election. Comstock is appealing the decision of retired Superior Court judge Raymond Williamson ordering election officials not to process or count signatures collected for a voter initiative to repeal Props. D and F.

"While I'm glad the department will be forthcoming in the future," Comstock said, "the fact remains that by dragging their feet and evading requests, the department prevented the Voting Integrity Project, a citizen group devoted to clean and fair elections, from access to crucial factual information, and compromised the Election Complaint which is currently under consideration at the State Supreme Court. In pursuing our right to a secret ballot and an accurate count, the department's noncompliance, evasion, and concealment constitute a clear cover-up. In manifest conjunction with the City Attorney's Office, this cover-up was calculated to withhold facts until the 180-day Election Contest filing period lapsed. Now the department promises 'never to do it again' -- that is not acceptable. That is like the bank robber saying he will never to do it again if he can keep the loot."

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