Changing Election Results, Voter Participation, and the Lack Thereof

November 8, 2011: Election Day. It was a pivotal moment in the history of the city. With over a dozen candidates with diverse backgrounds, allegations of fraud followed by a demand for investigations into the incumbent’s campaign, and incessant press speculation as to the ramifications of ranked-choice voting, all signs pointed to an engaged citizenry poised to make heard their voice in deciding the fate of San Francisco.

Or so it appeared. However, early numbers from the Department of Elections (DOE) showed that a meager 39% of registered voters had exercised their right. This number, of course, represents a still lower percentage of the voting age population.

Then the numbers changed. The percentage of voter turnout slowly inched up, eventually landing at (slightly) more respectable 42.47%. In fact, we could have seen this change coming (many no doubt did). The DOE even issued a press release on November 3, 2011 advising voters that final numbers cannot be available immediately: while unofficial results would be periodically released as more data became available, final election results would be announced by a press release, to be issued no later than December 6, 2011.

This year, official results were released to the public on November 17, 2011. To address concern about the fact that unofficial numbers generally change, John Arntz, the Director of the Department, issued a statement prefacing the results under the befitting heading, “Why Election Results Change After Election Night.” Here, Arntz explains the three main factors which prohibit the DOE from finalizing results on election night: 1) vote-by-mail ballots received on election day; 2) provisional ballots (cast in the face of questions as to the voter’s eligibility, which will be subsequently determined); and 3) write-in votes. These categories seemingly made up about 3.5% of total votes this year.

Given society’s hunger for immediate information, it is no surprise that the DOE churns out what results it has, when it has them. But incomplete numbers can be misleading, and this year is as good a time as any to remember that when it comes to election results, patience is a virtue.

Still, 42% seems pretty low. The volatile economy and obdurately polarized domestic politics indicate that leadership in San Francisco could play a decisive role in determining our direction into the future – but a fateful, if somewhat grave, moment in history seems to have had little persuasive value on 58% of registered voters. Having previously lauded ranked-choice voting on these pages, contemplating this figure I shuddered to ponder if confusion over the new system could possibly have deterred voters. Was turnout this year lower than usual?

In fact, it was rather typical. (Whew.) When Gavin Newsom was elected in 2003, it was with a 45% voter turnout; for his reelection in 2007 that figure was 35%. To find a turnout in a San Francisco mayoral election above 50%, one needs to look back two more cycles to the start of Willie Brown’s term in 1995. This election rang in with just below 52% turnout, which was the highest percentage since incumbent Dianne Feinstein was elected in her own right after serving the remainder of the assassinated George Moscone’s term in 1979 (55% turnout). Mayor Moscone, in turn, was elected the term before with a relatively astounding 72% voter turnout.

This anomalous election aside, however, San Francisco sees its highest turnouts, unsurprisingly, during presidential election years. As the mayoral election has always been off of the presidential cycle, it seems San Francisco will remain unlikely to ride the boon of presidential campaign enthusiasm to spur participation in mayoral elections to come. The League of Women Voters strives to encourage the active participation of the citizenry in government, and it is saddening to see how little store the majority seem to set by their power as voters. Let us recall that democracy begins at home – and home means our neighborhood, our city, and our state, not just our nation. As we conclude our celebration of the Centennial of women’s suffrage in California this December, this election is a wake-up call that the right to vote is also a hard-won privilege; and one best exercised locally, fervently and often.

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