If London Breed is ahead more than 10 in absentees, I’m drinking at that point,” says Mark Leno partisan

Many years ago, unknown advertisers erected particularly striking billboards around the Bay Area. They were stark: A mass of lily-white military headstones protruded from a sea of verdant green grass, trailing back to the vanishing point as far as the eye could see.

One word accompanied this photograph, in all-capital, block letters: “VOTE.”

It’s a hard message to miss. And yet, we are missing it.

Tracking the tally of mail-in ballots trickling back into City Hall prior to Tuesday’s election, we are running at a lower rate than any of the past six June primary elections. By the tail end of last week, only about 10 percent of registered voters had gone to the trouble of voting. We San Franciscans fancy ourselves sophisticated folks, but we routinely flood the polls only during big, splashy national contests — when our city and state’s input is minimally relevant. We can’t be bothered to vote in key municipal elections — even when billions of dollars in city expenditures and leadership over our $10 billion-a-year, nearly 900,000-member municipal corporation is up for grabs.

As such, the decisions that (barring North Korean missiles) are most relevant to your life are left to be decided by a small percentage of city voters — a plurality of a plurality. The number of first-place votes our next mayor receives may not be that many more than a good crowd at AT&T Park.

So, it’s going to be a low-turnout election. That’s how San Francisco rolls: The last three gubernatorial primaries clocked around 34 percent. We may not beat that. Most politicos I talked to are banking on a high-30s or low-40s election, with a possibility we’ll break 45 percent — and maybe hit 50 percent. That’s not bad compared to the rest of the state and nation. But it is pretty wretched compared to much of the democratic world. San Francisco asks a lot of its voters but, apropos of the times, one can now vote without ever leaving one’s home, interacting with no one — except, of course, the service worker who delivers items to and from your home.

In a low-turnout election, campaigns’ abilities to identify voters and ensure those people vote is ever more important. Meanwhile, number-crunchers tell me that, of the ballots that have already returned, some two-thirds were filled out by San Franciscans aged 50 or over. That is heavily out-of-whack with the electorate writ large, and it’s factors like these that experts will be eying as more and more data becomes available on June 5.

Older,home-owning white folks are high-propensity voters. If they rank disproportionately among the electorate, that’s good news for (older, home-owning, white) Mark Leno. Or, at least, it ought to be. That’s because, while June 5 will be a flurry of activity, it’s also a bit like starting a basketball at halftime and commencing to play two quarters of ball while not knowing how your team did in the first half. Starting 10 days before election day, the Department of Elections begins processing the votes it has received — but not tabulating them. It’s not until polls close, confirms elections boss John Arntz, that “we push the button and get the results.”

Continuing our basketball analogy — we have basketball on the brain — with the push of Arntz’s button at the end of the fourth quarter, all the teams suddenly learn how well they did in quarters one and two. Were you up by 10? Down by 10? Tied? It’s a hugely consequential factor, especially as a majority of voters in the city and state routinely now cast their ballots by mail.

Where the top-three candidates stack up after the initial voting totals are revealed after the polls close at 8 p.m. will set the tone for the night. Older, more conservative-leaning voters are not Jane Kim’s people, so she likely will have a steep hill to climb — but how steep? And how many young lefties will flood the polls in the progressives’ election-day get-out-the-vote drive? “Five or six points down, I’m feeling good,” says a Kim campaigner. “Six to nine, I’m nervous. Anything over that, I’m dejected.”

Meanwhile, for Leno, how he fares with some of his ostensibly best segments of the electorate is going to be a huge tell on whether election day is going to be tense for him and his supporters — or merely agonizing.

“If London Breed is ahead by more than 10 in the absentees, I’m drinking at that point,” says a Leno partisan. “Jane and Mark will catch up during the night, but it won’t be enough. If Mark is within five, it’s an interesting night. Five to 10, it’s stretching out the inevitable. If it’s over 10, hang it up.”

Lots of calls were made to lots of people, and variations of this quote were recited, independently, over and over. Breed will likely cross the finish line in first place among initial votes — any other outcome would be a repudiation of myriad polling, and an indication of gross mismanagement of millions of dollars. A commanding lead will validate her campaign’s late (and relatively minimal) embrace of ranked-choice strategy in a ranked-choice election. “But if Jane or Mark is within six to eight points, it’s going to be too close to call for a long, long time,” says a veteran city politico. “Above the eight-point threshold, though, most of the [second- and third-place votes] will have to break 2-to-1 against her to push other candidates up.”

That’s not likely; Kim and Leno have embraced a ranked-choice strategy, but any strategy that requires a supermajority of one candidate’s second-place votes to go to the other may be straining credulity.

We can predict where things are going, but we won’t get there for quite some time. Tabulating ranked-choice elections is a slow process (which is counter-intuitive for so-called “instant runoff voting”). The sequence of elimination of last-place candidates and redistribution of their votes can be altered as late ballots trickle in — and, per recent law, ballots merely need to be postmarked on Election Day, not received by it.

Mayor Mark Farrell, we are told, is expecting to lead the city perhaps into mid-July.  

When it’s all said and done, whoever wins the election will have done so with a different coalition of voters than the last couple of mayors. That’s important because, in San Francisco, you’re never too far removed from an election. Our next mayor all but certainly won’t receive the vast majority of the Chinese vote, for example — requiring him or her to be responsive to the needs of constituents that make up that winning coalition.

Come November, we’ll be voting for all the even-numbered supervisor districts (and, if Breed wins in June and depending on how quickly the election is settled, potentially her successor in District 5 as well). In November of next year, we’ll be voting for mayor once more.

But that’s then. First, we’ve got to get through June 5. “And if it’s close,” promises a longtime political player, “there will be lawyers involved. It’ll be Bush v. Gore.”

And we’ll all be drinking at that point.