A man stands in a hallway, with flags along the walls behind him.
Bilal Mahmood working for the Obama administration. Photo from Mahmood's Assembly candidate website.

Tech entrepreneur and neuroscientist Bilal Mahmood, one of four candidates for Assembly District 17, has a thin voting record, according to Department of Elections records obtained by Mission Local. 

Since 2008, Mahmood has only voted in five general elections and the 2021 gubernatorial recall election. During years with no general election, he failed to vote in a single municipal election or state primary. 

The other three candidates — David Campos, Matt Haney and Thea Selby — have voted in at least 20 elections each since 2008. 

Although Mahmood points to his experience working for the Obama administration as a policy analyst, he failed to vote in Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential primary election. 

And, while he voted in the 2020 general election, Mahmood skipped the 2020 primary, in which David Chiu ran for his most recent term as District 17 Assemblymember, the office Mahmood now aspires to attain. Chiu stepped down in October, 2021, to take over as City Attorney, and Mahmood is one of four candidates running for that office.  

Since 2008, Mahmood voted in only six elections.

The other candidates all voted in at least 20.

Other election

General election

Primary election

Bilal Mahmood

Matt Haney

Thea Selby

David Campos

0

4

8

12

16

20

Votes in elections

Since 2008, Mahmood voted in

only six elections. The other

candidates all voted in at least 20.

General election

Primary election

Other election

Bilal Mahmood

Matt Haney

Thea Selby

David Campos

0

4

8

12

16

20

Votes in elections

Graph by Will Jarrett. Data from the Department of Elections. Please note: ‘other’ elections are the 2021 gubernatorial recall election and the 2009 May special election.

Mahmood didn’t explain why he voted so infrequently, but told Mission Local that he only recently became interested in local politics. 

“National politics seem to be the gateway for most of us, growing up,” Mahmood said, adding that his voting practices evolved, and eventually he “got more locally engaged” in 2020 as he saw small businesses closing and a rise in anti-Asian violence during the pandemic.  

Before the 2020 general election, Mahmood voted with his immigrant parents from Santa Clara County as a family tradition, despite having moved to San Francisco in 2014. He confirmed that he has only voted in the 2008, 2010, 2012, 2016 and 2020 general elections, as well as the 2021 gubernatorial recall election. Records show he did not vote in the 2014 or 2018 gubernatorial races.

Mahmood has branded himself as a candidate who can disrupt a system filled with career politicians, and is running against two political figures with extensive political experience, including District 6 Supervisor Matt Haney and former District 9 Supervisor David Campos. 

But Mahmood’s spotty voting record raised doubts from his opponents about his genuine belief in the political process. 

“Voting is fundamental to our democracy,” Haney told Mission Local, “and we should expect people who want to be elected in a democracy to have taken the time to vote.” 

Thea Selby, another candidate, has the longest voting history of the four candidates, and currently serves on the City College Board of Trustees. She called Mahmood’s record “just ridiculous,” and said it’s “extremely disappointing that someone who wants to represent half of San Francisco has not been paying attention to politics, and hasn’t considered it important enough to vote.” 

Campos declined to comment on Mahmood’s voting history. 

Mahmood, a neuroscientist, has worked in tech startups and philanthropy. He has gotten endorsements from the South West Asian North African (SWANA) SF Democratic Club as well as organizations like Grow SF and SF YIMBY

Bruce Cain, a political science professor at Stanford, noted similarities with other businesspeople who have run for public office including Meg Whitman in 2008 and 2012 and Al Checchi in 1998. 

“What they had in common was that they were business executives who just assumed that they could transfer their business skills into politics,” Cain said. 

Businesspeople sometimes believe they “represent something different than the messy political process,” he said. “Of course, they’re wrong.” He noted the importance of candidates starting in local politics and developing political skills that aren’t always obvious at the outset. 

Mahmood is running on a platform supporting rapid housing development and addressing climate change, and has said he favors cutting of red tape and drawn-out processes which can slow progress on such priorities. 

Many candidates running for office have been criticized based on their meager or nonexistent voting records, including Andrew Yang, who ran for president and New York City mayor.

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REPORTER. Eleni is our reporter focused on policing in San Francisco. She first moved to the city on a whim over eight years ago, and the Mission has become her home. Follow her on Twitter @miss_elenius.

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20 Comments

  1. That’s very common for immigrants and 1st generation Americans. It’s why we work so hard to get them out to vote every election.

    If any of the thousands of low propensity voters I spoke to decided to run for office, I will be ecstatic instead of counting # of times they voted

  2. Has there really been any connection between voting in SF elections and better outcomes over the past 15 yr?

    It is not like Haney or Campos are beating the drums with kind of results that would bring people to the polls.

    After a certain point, enthusiasm for voting for candidates is increasingly confined to the self-referential political class.

  3. @Seeyaw Could you explain your comment? Are you excusing Mahmood’s lack of voting (which is, by the way, his job as a representative) because he is first generation? If so, please provide evidence that first generation Americans vote less than other Americans. My parents are both first generation, as are all my aunts and uncles and some of my cousins, and they never miss an election even though it is not their job (just a right they are excited to exercise). BTW Mahmood was born and raised in Palo Alto.

  4. “developing political skills”
    Like this one!

    Hillary Ronen campaign flyer from the 2020 election cycle:
    “Hillary strongly negotiated with the Mayor to create Mental Health SF to guarantee homeless people medication and services.”
    (Paid for by Hillary Ronen for Democratic County Central Committee 2020)

    Matt Haney campaign flyer from last week:
    “Guaranteed mental health services for every San Franciscan”
    (Paid for by Haney for State Assembly 2022)

    Any other candidates with “political skills” up for taking credit for “guaranteed” mental health services?

    Anybody else sick and tired of San Francisco style “political skills”?

  5. I was initially interested in Mahmood’s candidacy, but he didn’t submit a statement for the Voter Pamphlet. That just rubbed me the wrong way, like coming to a job interview wearing a T-shirt. Give us voters some respect and consideration!

  6. If the worst thing you can find to say about a candidate is that they didn’t vote in a public election 10 years ago, then that must be a pretty strong candidate. Endorsed!

    It would be much more educational to learn about the policies a new candidate supports than any minor detail about their person. How are the candidates going to improve the way the world works?

    1. Him saying that he was not interested in local politics until less than two years ago is a red flag to me. I could completely understand if he worked in or around any elected or campaign but I feel like maybe most wealthy and famous people have skills that may not transfer to holding a high political seat right out of the gate and on a whim.

    2. Part of his job in the Assembly is to vote. A big part of it. It’s not that he missed an election 10 years ago- it’s a consistent record of only voting in some (not all) general elections for over 10 years. He didn’t ever vote in the presidential election when Obama was elected- he missed that one. Again, voting on issues is in the job description of the office he is running for. This puts him to the bottom of my list. He may bring change, but I’m doubtful it’s the change you want. These are long hours of work- not sure he’s ready for it. I’d rather he start out in city politics as most people do.

  7. This doesn’t bother me at all. I will still vote for Mahmood mostly because the other candidates are so incredibly awful!

  8. Looking at the other candidates, I’m not convinced that participation is correlated with the quality of candidate or their stances. While it’s hard as a political wonk to understand not being active, it’s much easier to swallow than voting for someone who’s visibly lacking.

  9. From Bilal’s Reddit AMA:

    Looking at NYS election records, AOC never voted in any midterm election, despite being eligible to vote in 2010 and 2014.

    In other words, Bilal and AOC have the same voting history prior to entering electoral politics.

    This tracks as Bilal is a newcomer to local politics. His voting record over the past decade, like AOC’s, tracks with someone who has been interested in politics, but not someone who was super deep into local politics until very recently.

  10. I’m not sure the quote from the Stanford polisci professor really has a place in this article. Bilal is hardly a big business guy, having started a small company that was then acquired. If anything Bilal is someone who has shown appreciation for his fortunate position in life and has apparently decided to go do something not enough young people are trying to do — try to enact change. Leave it to the future to see if he delivers. On another note, I find this to be fairly poor journalism of the variety that appeals to emotion rather than logic, which seems to be trendy these days. I also find the graphic and figures in the article to be misleading in that they lack context and also compare Bilal to a very small sample size. I think Bilal’s record is honestly pretty normal. If anything it sounds quite a bit better than average. I doubt it reflects anything about his character or ability to lead. Moreover, I find the way the author responds to well-meaning comments on voter participation to be highly unprofessional and ego-driven, quite the opposite of positive community engagement.

    1. Correction: I wrongly stated that the author replied to a comment. The author did not engage on the comment feed. Apologies.

  11. Thank you for your coverage, Eleni!

    I’d ask voters to keep an open mind about the candidates and their voter records. Yes, it’s totally fair to scrutinize their voting records and be skeptical of big holes.

    However, if we held everyone to this purity test, then what incentive would people who haven’t voted in local elections—but who have great ideas and demonstrated integrity, humility, intelligence, ability, care for others, and the hunger to make change—have to run for office? How is this good for democracy and society at large?

    I personally support Bilal and hope that others will go deeper and scrutinize his policy ideas and platform, all listed on his website, before dismissing him. Imagine if we held AOC to this purity test 😭

  12. For much too long the professional politicians like Campos and Haney have steered our City on a course that has made this once great city into filthy crime plagued city that it has become. Campos and Haney want to continue with the same failed policies at the state level. San Franciscans should reject them both. Bilal Mahoud might bring a fresh change. We could use someone that actually ran a business instead of just feeding off the taxpayers. If you want to continue with the same then continue voting for the same.

  13. I don’t think it’s fair to shame people for their voting history, especially from someone who comes from a family of immigrants. He is involved now, showing up now, voting now, and that’s what matters. He has a lot of good ideas with tangible solutions and steps he plans to take. It’s okay to criticize him if you don’t agree with someone he said or is doing, but to take shots at his voting past seems irrelevant to me.

  14. Voting is essential and shows a person’s long-term commitment to participatory democracy. Not voting in past elections is a tremendous red flag.
    Not missing votes will be essential for our future Assemblymember. As I consider four excellent candidates, I’m grateful to Mission Local for shining a light on their voting records.

    1. I left a comment challenging Mr. Gordon to substantiate his claims with data that was redacted. What’s wrong with requesting that someone support their theories with data?

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