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Rise of the Zombie Voters 

Wednesday, Oct 28 2015
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"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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