A mural near 20th and Shotwell was completed in late 2020, as election season loomed. Photo by Annika Hom.

Right at the onset, let’s be clear: We’re not here to tell you how to vote. You can vote for whatever or whomever you want, for whatever reason — or no reason at all. 

But that doesn’t mean we have to nod along when specious arguments are made about the matters placed on the ballot before us. So that takes us to Proposition H, the fifth of 15 (yes, 15) measures we’ll be voting on in November. Prop. H would shift the election of significant, citywide offices — mayor, District Attorney, Sheriff, City Attorney, treasurer — from the present setup of odd-numbered years to even years.

Instead of being up for re-election in 2023, all of these politicians would be gifted another year in office and run in ’24. 

The turnout for the last three odd-year municipal elections has been 42 percent, 45 percent and 29 percent, respectively. 

The turnout for the last three even-year municipal elections — coinciding with presidential and gubernatorial contests — have been 86 percent, 74 percent and 81 percent. To crib the line from “A League of Their Own:” Well, then, this would be more, wouldn’t it?” 

Prop. H, in short, would shift the election of San Francisco’s most consequential offices to the elections when the most consequential numbers of San Franciscans show up to vote. Any binary argument between retaining the status quo over shifting to even-year voting comes down to claiming it’s somehow better for fewer people to vote than more. 

That’s a hard argument to make in San Francisco, or it ought to be. San Franciscans could elect Jello Biafra mayor or Dianne Feinstein mayor. But if 80 percent of the voters participate in this decision via a free and fair election, it’s hard to question the overall process. Or, somehow, claim a more legitimate outcome would’ve come about through a process involving half as many voters.

So the question of which political faction Prop. H would benefit is, at its essence, immaterial. More voters voting is good. Any political outcome that relies on fewer voters voting is not good. That shouldn’t be hard to admit. 

Photo by Lydia Chávez.

Mayor London Breed does not appear to see things that way. She described Prop. H as a power grab for the city’s Democratic Socialists. 

It’s hard to know where to begin with a statement like this. It’s more than a bit jarring to describe the potential winners of a free and fair election in which a supermajority of voters participate as, somehow, engaging in skullduggery.

And, while the term “Democratic Socialists” may induce the same eye twitch among a certain segment of San Francisco political Twitter as “Antifa” does among Fox viewers, here’s the deal: The Democratic Socialists of America are not a cadre of elite San Francisco political ninjas waiting to seize power via some well-executed surgical strike. This is a relatively small group of lefty political activists who get bogged down in arcana and procedure at meetings, post online about social justice and Bernie and cats, and will admit to you that they’re just not very organized.

Prop. H is the brainchild of Supervisor Dean Preston, a DSA member. The antipathy Breed feels for Preston — who gave her a competitive run for District 5 supervisor in 2016, and subsequently twice defeated Breed’s hand-picked successor, Vallie Brown — is probably enough to explain her abhorrence for Prop. H. If Preston came out in favor of water, Breed would likely advocate for everyone to cease drinking and bathing. 

But six of Preston’s Board colleagues — including Catherine Stefani and Ahsha Safaí — voted to put this measure on the ballot. This alone would strain the credulity of anyone claiming Prop. H is a DSA power-grab. And if Preston has ulterior motives for pushing Prop. H, he’s keeping them to himself. 

Even in private, unguarded moments, his ideological colleagues tell me — times when he could’ve glanced conspiratorially over his spectacles, grinned malevolently and admitted that This is how we’re going to sink Mayor Breed and elect the first progressive mayor since 19-fucking-92, he did no such thing. Rather, he’s stayed relentlessly on-message that more voters is good for democracy. 

If anyone in their heart of hearts, however, is hoping that an influx of voters will lead to Breed’s demise and the ascent of a progressive mayor — well, they may be in for a rude awakening. 

A young couple walks down Valencia street after voting, November, 2012.

The Chronicle last week ran a data analysis predicting that pockets of the city more favorable to Breed would vote in greater numbers than those less favorable to her. It’s a compelling article, though the “Progressive Voter Index” the analysis leans on is based upon voters’ choices on ballot measures, not candidates. 

But you don’t need to run an analysis to know that Breed has name recognition dwarfing any and all comers, and an ability to raise significantly more money than virtually any challenger. That’s kind of a big deal in a high-turnout, citywide election. 

“Name recognition is always the first barrier in politics, and she has resources most opponents do not,” says veteran political consultant Jim Ross. “Adding 30 percent to the electorate — being a high name-ID, high-finance candidate, it’s to your advantage.” 

Preston and others have stressed that low-income and minority voters, in particular, do not vote in large numbers during off-year elections. But it’s one thing to get them to the polls, and another to have progressive messaging win them over. That’s no given. 

Nor is it a given that the city’s Democratic Party will, in 2024, be controlled by progressives and endorsing progressive candidates and measures. Low-information voters who flood the polls in even years are often reliant on the election endorsements put out by the Democratic County Central Committee.

But if city moderates wrest back control of this body prior to 2024? “Then the whole thing blows up,” says a longtime progressive strategist. 

So, that’s something to think about. But not too hard. Not if you really believe that more voters voting is an unmitigated good.  

“I’m worried that we have a serious problem and done very little to address it,” said Paul Massi Cameli, who teaches 9th and11th grade English. He is saving his “I Voted” sticker as a prize for his students. Photo by Jennifer Cortez, November 2018.

If we assume Mayor Breed’s ultimate concern is for the state of democracy in San Francisco, her behavior doesn’t make intuitive sense. If, however, her guiding philosophy is L’état, c’est moi, everything becomes clearer. 

Breed has, rather masterfully, fobbed off nearly every potential challenger with a job: She shifted Carmen Chu from assessor to City Administrator, placed City Attorney Dennis Herrera atop the PUC, installed David Chiu as City Attorney and triggered an Assembly contest that was won by Matt Haney. 

Presto! Cleared the field. But, if Prop. H passes, there’s one additional year for someone who hasn’t yet been awarded a decent position to emerge and run. And a lot can happen in a year; voters are clearly surly and, sooner or later, the mayor may yet be held accountable for city conditions under the aegis of the mayor.  

If so, it behooves this mayor to run for re-election sooner rather than later. The true reckoning of the pending commercial real-estate crash and decline of the FiDi probably won’t be fully felt in ’23 when Breed would run if Prop. H fails. But by 2024, San Francisco could be saddled with a hardship budget. It is no picnic to be running for re-election while potentially trimming billions from city expenditures. And that’s all the more-so when the city’s union contracts come undone — as they do in ’24. 

“The moderate strategy for incumbent mayors going back to Willie Brown has been to pay off the unions,” says Ross. “You give them what they want in terms of budgets.” 

That will be difficult in 2024. And the unions may put their weight behind a candidate who pledges to give them what they want if the mayor feels it would be fiscally untenable to do so. 

Additionally, it has escaped few political observers in this city that a candidate up for re-election in 2024 would be forced to abandon her post if she opted to run for California’s Senate seat. This would not be an issue for a candidate up for re-election in 2023. 

San Francisco may not always be a rational place. But, in the end, it is ruled by rational actors. They know what’s good for them.  

Don’t forget to vote. 

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Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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  1. My worry is that by packing the even year elections with all the headline acts, president, mayor,etc, those odd year elections will have even more dismal turnouts. There’s a lot of important props and measures and other smaller elected offices will be decided by a very small pool of voters.

  2. Thanks to policy wonk Supervisor Dean Preston we have the Tenants Right to Counsel legislation along with expanded tenant protections during a global pandemic. We have more of our essential bus and MUNI lines running for San Franciscans thanks to Preston’s unstinting focus on SFMTA’s nonsense. Keep the pressure on Dean. Real working San Franciscans need these essential things. Shame on the Mayor for shafting thousands of essential workers and their families who rely on MUNI owl service to get home. How will SF ever return to basic life without plentiful, frequent and reliable MUNi? A no brainer.

  3. Joe,

    Great piece as always.

    I went to DOE yesterday and picked up:

    Guide to Recalling Local Elected Officials

    Working on Raison d’Etre ? now and hope to deliver by Friday.

    Elect out Police Chief !!

    Michael Hennessey’s throwback idea still works …

    Go Garoppolo !!

    h.

  4. I am in favor of this, and think the more people voting gives us the candidate that the real majority favor. This may be a result I like or not, but think it is always better to have more voters participate.

  5. When fewer vote, more of the voters have given it some thought before voting. When there are more contests, there is less attention to the lesser contests.

  6. I agree with moving elections to ensure greater participation. But let’s get rid of Ranked Choice Voting. Saving money by not having run-offs defeats the purpose of greater participation. If a majority of voters is not required to win, it will ensure more recalls in the future – spending all that money that was assumed to be saving.

  7. I’m fine with moving city elections to even-numbered years. I don’t get why the same ballot measure also eases signature requirements for adding ballot measures via petition process. Don’t we already have enough propositions cluttering our ballots?

  8. I agree. It matters not who it helps. Higher turnouts ensure that the policies and politicians who win have the support of an actual majority of the City rather than just the support of the majority who happened to turn out. It’s always funny to listen to someone that got, say, 55% of the vote in a 40% turnout election talk about having a mandate and how “the people have spoken”.

    I’m in favor of anything that gets voters out to actually vote.

  9. Thanks for these proposition deep-dives! Makes the bureaucratic chore of voting slightly more bearable.

    An unrelated hot take: I bet voting in SF would increase by at LEAST 1-2% if we had more interesting “I voted!” stickers

  10. First of all, Joe is absolutely 100% right. If you can increase turnout in local elections from 45% to 75% with this ballot measure, you do it. Higher turnout is better. You get city officials who represent the city, not merely the motivated off-year members of the city.

    I’m not sure this will be good for the Democratic Socialists. Maybe the less-engaged voters are more moderate. But Joe is right — it doesn’t matter. Take the vote and see what happens.