You may or may not know there's a municipal election coming up next month. Regardless, odds are you're not voting in it. This is both a historical fact and a bitter electoral irony. San Franciscans crash the polls to cast ballots for presidents and senators. But in off-year local contests, in which a few votes really can impact thousands of lives and billions of dollars, we give participatory democracy a pass.
The last such election, in November 2011, was fortified with municipal goodness: It featured contested races for mayor, district attorney, and sheriff; contentious dueling pension measures; and some $750 million in bonds. Only 42 percent of registered voters participated.
But that was progress: In November 2009, only 23 percent voted in the municipal election; in November 2007 the turnout was 36 percent.
A recent study by The Greenling Institute contrasted San Francisco's off-cycle, stand-alone 2011 municipal election with San Jose's consolidated 2010 state and local election. While the cities boast a similar number of registered voters, San Francisco's turnout was 21 percent lower — and our city spent five times as much per vote.
Last year, San Francisco voters approved a measure to begin electing all citywide offices simultaneously — starting in 2015. Further rejiggering elections to pair local contests with the state and national elections voters seem to actually care about would, naturally, require more voting.