Get SF Weekly Newsletters
Pin It

Rise of the Zombie Voters 

Wednesday, Oct 28 2015
Comments (8)

Page 4 of 5

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.


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.

Comments (8)

Showing 1-8 of 8


Comments are closed.

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed


  • clipping at Brava Theater Sept. 11
    Sub Pop recording artists 'clipping.' brought their brand of noise-driven experimental hip hop to the closing night of 2016's San Francisco Electronic Music Fest this past Sunday. The packed Brava Theater hosted an initially seated crowd that ended the night jumping and dancing against the front of the stage. The trio performed a set focused on their recently released Sci-Fi Horror concept album, 'Splendor & Misery', then delved into their dancier and more aggressive back catalogue, and recent single 'Wriggle'. Opening performances included local experimental electronic duo 'Tujurikkuja' and computer music artist 'Madalyn Merkey.'"