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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.

And we don't seem to care.

San Francisco's identity as a Democratic Party-dominated machine town is relatively new. Before Silicon Valley discovered its anarcho-libertarian side and Jeb Bush rode an Uber to a startup, the very idea of Republican presidential candidates campaigning in San Francisco was laughable. (Before this cycle, the closest any recent GOP contender came was a visit by Rick Santorum to Ronald Reagan's beloved Jelly Belly factory in Fairfield.) But there are people alive today who can still remember when the Republican Party nominated Barry Goldwater for president at its convention at the Cow Palace in 1964. And there are people still riding bicycles and drinking cheap beer in dive bars who, if pressed, might remember one-term mayors Art Agnos and Frank Jordan, ousted from office in 1991 and 1995, respectively.

If you came here — or were born — anytime after 1995, however, you have been living under a regime that has proven remarkably consistent.

Since termed-out state Assembly Speaker Willie Brown's election as mayor that year, centrist Democrats with strong ties to powerful establishment politicians such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Nancy Pelosi have held onto the mayor's seat and not let it go.

City Hall is full of familiar faces — the last three mayors have shared a powerful top aide, who served both current Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and Lee as chief of staff — most of whom are welcomed as allies in big business circles.

Lee's entry to this world was more republican than democratic. Five years ago, when Newsom was elected lieutenant governor, the Board of Supervisors was tasked with selecting his successor. Complicated parliamentary maneuvering — some of it conducted behind closed doors and via text message — saw the city's left lose its best-ever shot at having one of its own as mayor. Instead, the Board chose Lee, a virtually unknown, long-serving city bureaucrat who at the crucial hour was vacationing in Taiwan.

Installed as an interim mayor in an election year already full of candidates, Lee promised to serve only until his duly elected successor was sworn in. But days before the August filing deadline, under pressure from Brown and Chinatown institution Rose Pak, Lee had a change of heart. Using the power of incumbency and the bully pulpit of the city's most powerful office — as well as the support of the Democratic establishment, from Feinstein on down — Lee became the immediate front-runner and recorded a double-digit victory in November over his closest opponent, left-leaning Supervisor John Avalos.

This year, Lee's incumbency, his formidable fundraising — he raised more than $1.5 million "without even really trying," one veteran consultant says — and a narrative that the two factors make him unbeatable have served to scare away all serious political challengers.

This has left Amy Farah Weiss, a bicycle-riding nonprofit manager, Francisco Herrera, a long-haired musician and community activist, and Stuart Schuffman, a bartender and travel writer whose professional name is "Broke-Ass" as the foils for Lee's reelection to a second term. They may be passionate and have good policy ideas, some of which were presented to a half-interested Lee during the campaign's only debate on Oct. 8, but they have not made Lee sweat.

"The fact that Ed Lee is getting a free ride is truly remarkable," says consultant Jim Ross, who handled Newsom's election bid in 2003. "Every mayor throughout the country is having a hard time right now."

With so few challengers in the political arena, it's not surprising that Lee's most uncomfortable moment of his reelection campaign came in a restaurant.

In early October, Lee had just finished a meal at Max's Opera Café on Van Ness Avenue with Assessor-Recorder Carmen Chu. The mayor was heading towards the door when a Mission District native named Ilyich Sato, there with his family before a screening of a Black Panthers documentary at the nearby cinema, stopped Lee on the way out.

"Mayor Lee?" Sato asked.

"How are you?" replied the mayor, not breaking his stride.

"I'm all right, but, you're a disgrace to Asians, man," offered Sato.

Lee halted. Sato had his attention, and the attention of Lee's undercover police security detail, who stepped in between the two men.

"You have no heart," Sato continued. "The people that built this city, you're getting them all kicked out of here, man. That's some cold shit."

Lee exited before the exchange, about 30 seconds in all, went much further. But the outburst, recorded on a smartphone and posted to social media, earned Sato — a preschool teacher and underground rapper known as "Equipto" whose grandfather was born in a Japanese internment camp during World War II — the distinction of de-facto spokesman for Lee's opposition.

What Equipto unleashed on Lee — blame for the housing crisis, blame for the widening gap between rich and poor, and blame for the city's rapid gentrification and displacement of people of color— can be easy to dismiss as the rantings of a lone crank, heard for a moment and then lost in the tech boom good times of the Lee era.

But this is the same kind of sentiment that, tapped by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, has made an anti-establishment, anti-big banks leftist the stiffest competition against Wall Street favorite Hillary Clinton in the race for next year's Democratic presidential nomination.

If obvious discontent with the establishment can be tapped to gain traction nationwide, why not here?

Most publicly released polls rate Lee's approval in the mid-50s to low-60s. Compare that to Newsom, who recorded approval ratings in the 70s but still survived a challenge in 2003 from then-Board of Supervisors President Matt Gonzalez by only five percentage points, and it would seem that a Lee challenger would have a ready-made base.

"Ed Lee is popular," says political consultant Nicole Derse, "but there is a sizable piece of the electorate that does not have a high opinion of him."

About a year ago, buoyed by some limited but positive polling, there was talk that state Sen. Mark Leno, a former Brown appointee to the Board of Supervisors who terms out of the Legislature next year, would try to unseat Lee. Leno spent only a few months as the left's new hero before Lee's massive campaign war chest and the media's depiction of the mayor as unbeatable urged him to bow out (without ever really being in).

The episode revealed the ordered efficiency with which the local Democratic Party is run. In San Francisco, politics can resemble a waiting room, where hopeful job-seekers patiently sit until their turn is called. (Imagine if Barack Obama had acted similarly and ceded the field to Hillary Clinton.) This waiting game pays off for career-oriented politicians, many of whom see a path from here to higher office in Sacramento, and then possibly beyond — as long as the boat's not rocked, and as long as they work within this system.

Recent history suggests bucking the line can shorten your political career. The left loves to crow about the 2000 election, when a slate of lefties completed a near-sweep against supervisors close to then-Mayor Willie Brown.

Of those people-powered politicians, not a single one holds office today.

"If you look at that, you're gonna say, 'Gee, maybe they were too independent,'" says Gonzalez, a "Class of 2000" alum who currently works as the Public Defender's chief deputy attorney. "Today, you're probably going to have to play ball more with the establishment."

The result for voters, though, is an insipid sameness among candidates.

"Candidates are not bold. It's the politics of the lukewarm," says Avalos. "Stability and continuity are most important, so you have people who practice politics and yet don't feel strongly about anything. "

The simplest reason why Lee didn't face a challenge from a politician is that "nobody thought they could win," says Avalos. "That narrative has been hard to penetrate."

San Francisco's economic might is the envy of cities worldwide. In an attempt to emulate the city's total rebound from the recession — unemployment is now 3.2 percent, the lowest since the height of the last boom, in May of 2000 — some cities are rolling out the red carpet for the kind of tech jobs lured here by a favorable tax structure and outright tax breaks. (Other cities, such as Lee's hometown of Seattle, point to San Francisco as a cautionary tale).

There are now more than a million jobs in the city, according to the state Employment Development Department, and tens of thousands more at tech campuses throughout the Peninsula and Silicon Valley. To house the 10,000-plus people who now move to San Francisco every year, capital is flooding into real estate development from overseas, leading to a short-lived joke (which has wisely not been repeated as much, ever since the city's housing crisis led to protests of tech buses) that the omnipresent construction crane should be the city's new official bird.

It's the local Democratic Party's job to sign up new voters, be they monolingual Chinese-speaking immigrants or 23-year-old coders. And the party has struggled to keep up. Under the stewardship of party chair Mary Jung, elected in 2012, voter registration in San Francisco has fallen below the California average for the first time since 2000.

That year, more than 91 percent of eligible San Franciscans were registered to vote. This year, according to the Secretary of State, registration has dipped to 69 percent, the lowest in the Bay Area, and well below other major California cities such as Los Angeles, which has increased voter registration from 65 percent to 80 percent in 10 years.

(Statewide, 6 million eligible voters are unregistered, according to the Secretary of State, though not for long. This month, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a bill that will automatically register voters when they renew their driver's licenses.)

Jung did not respond to a request for comment, but the city's abysmal registration rate is not her fault.

San Francisco's environment in 2015 is good for business but terrible for democracy.

Many blame the tech boom, but it's not tech's fault, either — not entirely. Voter participation would be bad even if the new jobs were all hairdressers, baristas, or urban farmers.

And while the 18-to-30-year-old set is also notoriously bad at voting — only about eight percent of young people participated in the last California midterm — it's not all millennials' fault, either.

The city's current demographic trends are perfectly suited to foster non-voters. Young people don't vote, and newcomers don't vote, either. Whether because they choose to remain registered back at home in a swing state like Ohio, or because they're unfamiliar with the city and its political landscape, voters tend to take a few years before they take an interest in politics.

A city inundated with fresh waves of career-focused climbers, then, is a perfect storm of non-participation.

"We definitely have a challenge to get young people registered," says Supervisor Scott Wiener, a former Democratic Party chair. "It's a challenge faced across the country: A voter pool that doesn't fully reflect the population."

It's true that likely voters tend to skew older and richer. Yet San Francisco's status as a wealthy global city isn't helping local turnout, either.

Some of the city's better organized, activist neighborhoods are also enclaves of poverty. Places like the Tenderloin are hubs for community organizers.

"Tenderloin residents were very engaged," says Supervisor Jane Kim, who has represented the area since her election in 2010. "They could name their elected representatives, they knew what the top three issues before the Board were."

That was not the case when Kim campaigned elsewhere in the district, like in the condominium towers of Rincon Hill.

"People with The New York Times or The Economist under their arms could talk about health care or the war in Iraq," she says, "but they didn't know as much about who their local representative was. Usually people aren't engaged in local politics unless they need something that can be done at a local level."

This could also explain why the city's housing crisis hasn't led to a citizens' revolt at the polls. As far as crises go, the city's affordability problem is safely contained to a minority.

Two-thirds of San Franciscans are renters. That makes another third homeowners — and they, for the most part, are "stoked" at the city's stupendous real estate prices, Ross observed. Among the two-thirds who rent, not everyone is low-income or in a precarious position with a landlord. Those at risk of eviction or in the process of being evicted make a lot of noise, but they are a vocal minority.

If voting "is a habit acquired with age," as the Pew Research Center declared in 2006, the city's growing childlessness is also hurting local democracy. In the 1970s, almost a third of city residents were 19 or younger, according to census data. People were "from here." Today, people under the age of 18 comprise less than 12 percent of the population — and every study suggests that families with children are not hanging on in San Francisco.

The city's ongoing displacement issue has also likely removed from the city people who were politically active. "I go through the voter list and make calls," says Farrah-Weiss, "and I can't tell you how many people tell me, 'Sorry, I moved to Oakland.'"

Still, for every artist who skipped town, there are several brand managers or baby-faced entrepreneurs. In a city that fetishizes "visionaries" who compete to disrupt old patterns of doing business, a mass of inactive voters would seem like a grand opportunity for political campaigns. But no one is taking the challenge. The growing ranks of zombie voters will have to engage themselves, because political campaigns choose to ignore them.

A week before Election Day, a short, bearded white man in a plaid sportcoat darts into a Chinatown coffee shop. "Jou sanh!" sings Aaron Peskin, the former Board of Supervisors president. Peskin is standing for his old seat again, and has not forgotten how to say "Good morning!" in Cantonese. The Chinese seniors huddled over cups of coffee, tea, and bowls of rice porridge look up and recognize the familiar face. They also know his Chinese name, printed all over his Chinese-language literature. "Boy-se-kin!" one says.

Peskin, who is attempting to unseat mayoral appointee Julie Christensen, has bounded into Chinatown after hopping off the California Street cable car line. By 8:20 a.m., he'd already made the trip from Van Ness Avenue to Grant Avenue twice. At the end of the line, he met a campaign volunteer who drove him back to the start to do it all over again.

The cable car, he explains, allows him to buttonhole would-be voters on their commute. "Everyone on here," he says as the car clatters past Grace Cathedral on Nob Hill, "is a local."

According to election experts, riding cable cars is how campaigns are won. Studies show that nothing motivates voters like interpersonal contact. When compared to phone banking (3 to 5 percent increase in turnout) and social media (no effect), there is no substitute for in-person canvassing (a 7 to 9 percent increase), a recent University of California, Berkeley study of elections in Los Angeles and the Bay Area confirmed.

Not every campaign in San Francisco is run this way, however. During Peskin's sprint through the district, there is little sign of Christensen's campaign. There are no volunteers and very few campaign materials until Peskin reaches Caffe Trieste, his regular coffee spot, where a red Christensen sign decorates nearly every window. (The baristas still serve him his regular latte.)

Politics requires money, every expert will tell you. Politics is speech, and "it costs money to speak," writes David Cole, the Georgetown University law professor and frequent critic of big money.

This is only partially true in local politics. Much has been made of the influence of tech majordomo Ron Conway, who has funneled close to a million dollars into local politics over the past few cycles. But in a campaign based in a small corner of an already small city, it's easy to counterbalance the influence of money with a crowd of volunteers, mobilized via a labor union or a community-based nonprofit (although, as of press time, Peskin was also outspending Christensen).

The problem for zombie voters is that they are not on the radar of local campaigns. Their focus is so-called "likely voters": people who reliably participate in elections. These voters are identified and targeted — with the most mail, the most phone calls, and the most knocks on the door from canvassers. If a voter hasn't been out to the polls in a few years, or — worse — if they are unregistered, they will likely never figure into a campaign's strategy to begin with.

"It becomes a Catch-22," said political consultant Nicole Derse, a former Obama organizer whose consultancy handled Cory Booker's successful 2013 Senate bid in New Jersey. "If I have a budget of $200,000, I am only talking to people who definitely vote. You are not talking to people who you need to inspire to vote."

"And it's much worse in a low-turnout election," she added. "You are never going to talk to them in 2015, and that's a problem."

In a twist, two local election innovations meant to increase voter turnout in local elections have instead led voters to stay home: off-year elections and ranked-choice voting.

San Francisco is highly engaged during presidential elections. More than 80 percent of voters cast ballots when Obama was first elected in 2008. Similar numbers turned out to support Al Gore and John Kerry in 2000 and 2004.

But we and other California cities schedule our municipal elections in odd-numbered off-years. This is meant to intensify local focus, but instead has led to a situation where less than one-third of our citizens select our leaders.

"By holding local elections in different years from other important [elections], we make it less likely that voters will perceive that there are important interests at stake," says Jason McDaniel, a professor of political science at San Francisco State University.

With the exception of the 1975 race, when Moscone defeated Feinstein and Supervisor John Barbagelata, the city's strategy of holding municipal elections in odd years, whether or not the incumbent has a challenger, has always led to lower turnout than presidential years.

Lately, municipal election turnout has even fallen behind that of midterm Congressional elections — and with public disgust in Congress at a high, that's saying something.

Adding to the confusion and to the opting-out is the decade-old institution of ranked-choice voting. This "instant-runoff" system, where voters can choose up to three candidates for an office, replaced the previous system of December run-offs, when intense focus and just two candidates used to increase turnout by as much as 10 percent. Ranked-choice voting saves time and money, but it continues to confound the electorate. (This year, after 10 years of explaining, a Christensen campaign mailer saw fit to remind voters that "You can vote for two!")

Defenders of ranked-choice voting point out that it leads to coalition-building, and a new crop of office-holders that includes more women and people of color. This may be true, but it has also come at the cost of participation.

"I am not a fan of our current system, and I think it needs to be reformed," says Wiener. "When you have 15 to 20 people on one ballot, you can't expect voters to distinguish between that many candidates."

Switching municipal elections to even years would require modifying the city's charter at the ballot. It seems likely that voters would opt to make their lives easier, but changing the charter would require either a petition drive or an interested politician. Given how hard it is to get people to vote for a mayor, is it reasonable to expect them to be interested in the finer points of the process?

"The greatest menace to freedom is an inert people," Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote in a 1927 opinion.

That menace is here, so what are we going to do about it?

Modern critics of the many problems of our corporate money-dominated, post-Citizens United national political process point to local jurisdictions as places where the solution can be found. San Francisco deserves credit for instituting populist measures like public financing, but it's beyond question that more needs to be done.

Voting is undeniably an antiquated process. Efforts to allow Americans to vote online have been stymied by security concerns, and efforts to make Election Day a national holiday have gone nowhere. (San Francisco voters have long been able to vote early at City Hall, without a positive effect on turnout.) Even longtime voters may have trouble this year — the city has 600 voting precincts, but a dearth of volunteers has forced a consolidation down to 400 voting locations. On Tuesday, more than a few regular voters will trudge to their usual polling place only to find it closed.

In order to fix democracy, technology has resorted to shame. Brigade, a "civic engagement" startup funded by Napster co-founder Sean Parker — a billionaire who has donated heavily to political causes and may yet finance a voter initiative to legalize marijuana next year — is attempting to use social pressure to compel its users to vote.

Users of the app can take "positions" on a variety of issues, such as short-term rentals or market-rate construction in the Mission (the subjects of Props. F and I, respectively, on Tuesday's ballot). These positions are then shared with other members of the user's social network, who will presumably be encouraged to take a position themselves, lest they appear a mindless rube.

"People participate civically because of cultural norms and expectations," says Matt Mahan, Brigade's CEO. "What scares me is that people are opting out of cultural norms."

Apathy, every politician, consultant, and voter interviewed for this story insists, is not the problem. "Young people are excited about issues," Wiener notes. But there's a disconnect between the thought and the action, and a growing conviction that voting can fix neither a pothole nor income inequality.

Left unchecked, the result of that sentiment would be, Mahan says, "a very negative spiral that we may already be in."

Opting out is a choice, just like voting is a choice. You can blame voters for not exercising their right to choose, but that tells only part of the story. Voters must feel that they have a decision to make, and that making that decision has consequences.

That means the voting process must be simple and easy to understand. It also means candidates and campaigns have to make their differences clear. In San Francisco, a city with a complex ballot, an election almost every year, and candidates often distinguished only by their sameness — last year's Assembly race between two Harvard-educated supervisors named David is a prime example — this is simply not happening.

Back in Dolores Park, one of Temprano's colleagues has a breakthrough. A young park goer is excited about voting. "Is there really an election next week?" she asks.

"Yes!" the politico replies, excitedly, before a deflating reveal: The DoPa denizen is talking about voting for Bernie Sanders.

"The president," the activist patiently explains, "is next year."


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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