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Rise of the Zombie Voters 

Wednesday, Oct 28 2015
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In the new Dolores Park, the bathrooms are new, the grass is new, the park's contentious shorthand moniker "DoPa" is new, and so is the weather — 70 degrees and sunny in late October. Although it's 2015 and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg owns a heavily fortified mansion nearby, a motley citizenry still congregates on the park's lower bowl near Mission High. The type of park-goer who would wear a Dropbox shirt with a sense of irony now shares blanket space with someone who actually works at Dropbox.

While some talk of tech entrepreneurship, a more populist brand of entrepreneurism lives on. A young man in waist-length dreadlocks hauls a cooler full of coconuts through the throng. For a few dollars, he'll hack one open with a machete and fill it with rum.

It's here, on a recent balmy Sunday afternoon less than a week before Halloween, that Tom Temprano is mistaken for a "hot Mormon."

"Someone asked me if I was in costume," says Temprano, a Mission District bar owner and DJ, as he self-consciously studies his outfit: black slacks fresh from the dryer that morning, a white oxford shirt, and a very reasonable — some might say conservative — print tie.

This is the look of a political candidate in action. As he explains, Temprano is seeking a seat on City College of San Francisco's Board of Trustees, not playing missionary. Election Day is 10 days away, and he's out here talking to potential voters.

Temprano and a half-dozen political activists fan through the crowd handing out campaign literature. In about an hour, they'll distribute a few hundred of the 40,000 election guides that the League of Pissed-Off Voters — a former chapter of the League of Young Voters (a now-defunct national political organization whose web domain was sold to a Tinder-like dating app) prints every year.

Despite constant competition for attention — at least three other eager salespeople are traversing the park, hawking marijuana in various forms — the crowd is receptive to the unsolicited electioneering. Nearly every offered voter guide is accepted and at least glanced at before being set aside for another sip of beer or swipe at the smartphone. One couple passes a guide back and forth while sharing a (tobacco) cigarette; a young bloke in a sweatshirt printed with the phrase "D$LLA BILL" tunes out from his companions' conversation to take a deeper look at the guide's recommendations.

The show of civic interest is encouraging for Temprano. It's also false hope.

With few exceptions, the people gathered here will never vote in a local election. They are not alone. Scratch a crowd of strivers at Fort Mason, dropouts at Hippie Hill, or average folks on Muni and you'll find non-voters — and there are more and more of them in San Francisco every year.

San Francisco is a bigger and richer city than ever. But as 845,000 — and growing — people live in a city with a $9 billion — and growing — annual budget, fewer than ever are participating in the process of deciding how that money is spent and who governs them.

Since 1975, when 72 percent of registered voters — or 215,000 people, in a city of 640,000 souls — voted in the contest that saw George Moscone elected mayor, participation in local elections has been on a steady and inexorable decline.

This year, 626,002 people are eligible to vote in San Francisco, according to the California Secretary of State — an all-time high and an increase of 100,000 since the turn of the millennium.

Despite a slew of voter initiatives on Tuesday's ballot directly related to the city's ongoing housing crisis, a horde of voters will pass on democracy on Election Day.

If dismal projections predicting 25 to 30 percent turnout hold true, the number of "zombie voters" in San Francisco — eligible but unregistered voters and registered voters who choose not exercise their democratic right — will reach as high as 518,000.

When it comes to democracy, the zombies are here — and they are winning.

"It is very alarming," said Jim Ross, a veteran political consultant. "And I feel like it's going to take a real crisis, where people are very afraid, in order to change it."

A combination of factors, including demographics and economics, is behind this 40-year trend. But neither millennials nor the tech boom — those all-purpose civic bogeymen — are solely to blame for the city's current non-participatory democracy.

The way San Francisco's local Democratic Party picks its contenders encourages sameness among candidates and discourages challengers. This in turn discourages voters, who tend to participate when presented with a clear choice (think Obama vs. McCain, or Donald Trump vs. a clown car's worth of career politicians).

To make matters worse, the way local political campaigns are run — with time and attention focused on regular voters — means that politically unengaged non-voters rarely even factor into a campaign's strategy.

None of this is going to change anytime soon. Which means, barring disaster or revolution, most San Franciscans will continue to sleep through local elections, and decisions will continue to be made by an ever-slimming minority.

San Francisco is not alone in facing this conundrum. Voters in other cities across the country have also checked out from municipal elections. In a review of 340 mayoral races across the country from 1996 to 2011 conducted by University of Wisconsin-Green Bay researcher Aaron Weinschenk, turnout averaged roughly 25 percent.

San Francisco isn't even the least participatory major city in California. When Los Angeles selected a new mayor in 2013, only 21 percent of voters turned out. In a city council race in L.A. earlier this year, less than 16 percent of voters participated.

But San Franciscans do like voting for president, when our vote matters least. One of the bluest of the blue states, California's stack of electoral votes has gone to Democrats every year since 1992.

In municipal elections, when our votes matter most, we are disenfranchised from the political process. Unlike deliberate disenfranchisement tactics resurfacing in other parts of America, this withdrawal is happening in a more subtle and insidious way — we are willfully letting it happen.


About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has spent most of his adult life working in San Francisco news media, which is to say he's still a teenager in Middle American years. He has covered marijuana, drug policy, and politics for SF Weekly since 2009.

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