Outspoken but outvoted: low turnout at the polls plagues activist hotbed of San Francisco


Graphic by Thomas Guffey/SF Public Press.

San Francisco voters overall do not have too much in common with defeated GOP gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman. However, they share one trait: Politically active as they may be, much of the time they cannot be bothered to vote.

The daily street protests forming the backdrop of the city’s life for generations belie a lack of engagement at the ballot box. San Francisco has consistently one of the worst voter turnout records in the Bay Area and even the state.

While press coverage of  Whitman’s repeated failure to show up to the polling place forced her to “apologize” to the voters during her first televised gubernatorial debate with Jerry Brown in late September, San Francisco officials are sounding decidedly less moralistic.

Experts disagree about the causes, with some proposing a demographic explanation. Many city residents are immigrants and other marginalized minorities. The problem has city officials and civic groups grappling for ways to lure voters to the polls. Some advocate opening the polls on the Saturday before election to increase turnout.

San Francisco has ranked dead last of the nine Bay Area counties in 10 of the 26  elections since 1990. Twice — once during the November 1992 general elections and again during the March 2000 primary elections — the county ranked last out of California’s 58 counties. The turnout on Nov. 2 was 60 percent.

Melisa Michelson, a professor of political science at Menlo College, said she is not surprised at the low turnout rate for San Francisco. However, more concerning than how people vote is who gets to vote.

“There are a lot of naturalized citizens and people that are less proficient in English,” she said. “It’s very much a city of immigrants.”

The Bay Area is home to a large number of languages —112 according to a 2005 study based on Census data and 94 in San Francisco. And beyond the language barrier, new potential voters are often overwhelmed. Many voters are anxious about the process of voting or fear they will do something wrong.

Countering these fears, an array of civic groups, such as the League of Women Voters, produce pamphlets to explain the ballot and its measures. Others, such as the Chinese American Voter Education Committee, reach out directly to voters. The Department of Elections runs voter outreach programs with community organizations such as Friendship House, an American Indian organization.

“The degree to which a simple invitation can help is important,” Michelson said. “Some people feel like voting isn’t for ‘people like them.’”

Charlie Macnulty, the city’s voter education manager, said voter education needs to be deep as well as broad. “Turnout is important,” he said, “but having an informed electorate is important as well.”

His aim is to reach voters who might have a harder time voting, such as seniors and ex-convicts. The city works to educate and register people, using posters and advertising in ethnic media and Muni shelters.

They also present at community events in five different languages, including the basics of voting, deadlines and the mechanics of the vote.


California residents have been able to vote at county elections departments in the 30 days before an election.

Alex Tourk, a former aide to Mayor Gavin Newsom, wants to change the way the city votes. He is the founder of Why Tuesday? San Francisco, the group behind local Measure I, which would open polling places the Saturday before the November 2011 election as part of a pilot program — provided enough donations are found to pay for it. The goal is to increase turnout by making voting more convenient. The measure won easily, with nearly 60 percent of the vote.

“My gut says the day gets away from people,” Tourk said. “I’m a business owner. I can move a meeting from 9 to 9:30, but not everyone has that luxury. We want to build a community around families coming out and voting together.”

Not everyone buys the idea of tinkering with Tuesdays. Terence Faulkner, a member of the San Francisco Republican Party Central Committee  and the most consistent opponent of  local ballot propositions year after year, and Republican state Senate candidate Doo Sup Park, said in the official ballot pamphlet that the measure is unnecessary because “there will most likely be one or two voters per hour.”

They call Saturday voting “a massive waste of resources.”

The Why Tuesday? campaign said Tuesday was chosen as the day to vote more than 100 years ago, when communities were much smaller. It gave rural farmers time to get to polling places without disturbing religious celebrations.

“We have an antiquated electoral system with no movement,” Tourk said. “Almost half of voters aren’t voting. We’re trying to inspire them.”

But it’s far from clear that Tourk’s strategy will work. Although the early day might be more convenient, studies have shown that early systems don’t inspire many new voters. Political scientist Adam J. Berinsky, an associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has found that voting reform encourages those who already vote to continue to do so, rather than bringing new participants into the fold.

Advocates for early voting say any measure of increased engagement would be welcome. “It makes sense to vote on Saturday — it’s definitely more convenient. But it’s not so much about convenience, it’s more about the cognitive barrier and making people feel welcome,” said Michelson.

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