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Usually fighting for voter access, SF Democrats wait in rain for hours to cast delegate ballots

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Democratic delegate candidate Mia Satya, right, speaks to a long line of voters in the rain on Sunday in San Francisco. (Courtesy Matthew Steen)

Democrats nationally have complained of Republicans keeping voters from the polls, but Democrats on Sunday in San Francisco waited for hours in the rain to vote for their party delegates.

Those delegates attend Democrat conventions and vote to endorse state party leaders, like people running for the state assembly, to give them the official Democratic seal of approval.

Many of those waiting were seniors, some of whom are less physically able to stand for long periods, noted attendees of the vote.

The votes were in Assembly Districts 17 and 19, essentially San Francisco’s west and east sides. The vote is usually a sleepy affair, political insiders told the San Francisco Examiner, and only rose to prominence in 2015 in anticipation of a major assembly race between San Francisco candidates David Campos and David Chiu — a race Chiu won.

Now, Chiu stands accused by progressive-leaning Democrats of bussing in seniors who had little knowledge of the race. But the state Democratic party, which oversees the voting process, is also accused of failing to verify voter registration and of leaving party members out in the cold during what was anticipated to be California’s worst storm of the year.

The rain was light at the Labor International Union Hall on Sunday, where Democratic Party voting took place, but the wind was strong, and hundreds of seniors waited in it to vote.

Chiu did not have an immediate response to the accusation, but his office said he would send a statement soon.

Debra Walker, a state Democrat convener who ran the Assembly District 17 polls, said the “problem” was a blessing, as turnout was huge.

“I didn’t get home from voting until after midnight,” she said, due to the sheer number of votes. All told, 1,700 democrats voted in AD 17 this weekend, versus nearly 900 in 2015.

Part of the reason people perceived the system bursting at the seams, Walker said, is because the voting system was designed for the historically small turnouts of the delegate elections.

“The design of the ballot, the tally sheets we have to use, all of it needs an upgrade,” she said. “I have a debrief I intend to do with people’s complaints, my own complaints.”

Those complaints were common from both progressive and moderate Democrats, across Facebook and in calls and texts to the Examiner over the weekend.

Former assemblymember and progressive Democrat Tom Ammiano was one of those who pointed to a flawed system and told the Examiner, “There’s still a lot that needs to be called out about the process. … I heard a lot about people my age” waiting in the rain, he said, referring to seniors.

“This is bullshit right here. These are Democrats,” said Laura Clark, an assembly delegate who is aligned with moderates, in a Facebook video recorded by comedian and Examiner columnist Nato Green.

Above, SF Berniecrats co-founder Claire Lau levies accusations against Assemblymember David Chiu and the moderate Democrats.

“We should know how to get people in and out of the polls,” Clark said as she stood in the rain. “This is insane and inexcusable. I am running for this and I had no idea it’d be this bad.”

It has been “this bad” for years, according to insiders, as even in 2015 lines stretched out of the African American Art & Culture Center in the Fillmore District, down long flights of stairs and out onto the sidewalk while people waited for hours to vote.

“If you want to know how many political nerds there are in San Francisco, take a look,” Green said in his video, as he walked by a long line of Democrats waiting in the rain. “It’s like Coachella for nerds.”

“All these people waiting to vote to have the privilege of going to more meetings and vote for something maybe someday,” he added, noting that the delegates themselves hold little power.

Whereas delegates in past years voted to endorse in San Francisco’s recent, hotly contentious state Senate and Assembly races, it is anticipated by the political community that Assemblymember Chiu will have no sizable opponents, leaving the delegates little political influence.

Still, the rise of former presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders in the last election revealed the sometimes-importance of national Democratic delegates, insiders said, stirring the political energy around even state delegate elections.

Locally, San Francisco progressive Democrats ran slates against more “moderate” centrist Democrats, in a microcosm of the Bernie-Hillary Clinton divide. The progressives accused moderate Chiu of bussing in hundreds of allegedly ill-informed seniors to vote for his slate, which moderates said was normal organizing, as well as condescending toward an immigrant community.

“At around 9:30am, the first bus arrived, carrying several dozen elderly Chinese people. They spoke Cantonese only and got behind the short line that had formed,” wrote Claire Lau, a progressive and co-founder of SF Berniecrats who speaks Cantonese, on Facebook Sunday.

Lau wrote she believed many of the voters were not naturalized or citizens and may not be legally allowed to vote. But many participants noted no one from the Democratic party was verifying voter registration at the event.

“As a progressive I don’t want to be implementing laws that prohibit low-income communities from accessing the ballot box,” Lau said. “But at the same time, busing in a group of elderly Cantonese-only speakers who have no idea who the candidates are, who are questionably eligible voters, and forcing them to vote a certain way without given them the opportunity to make their own decisions as to who they should vote for is utterly undemocratic.”

Above, progressive allied Democrat Dominic Chan rebuts the progressive Democrats.

Walker said it is not state Democratic Party policy to check voter registration for state party voting, though individual votes may be challenged. Voters were also registered at the event, she said.

But a progressive aligned democrat, Dominic Chan, called out fellow progressives seemingly on behalf of moderates and wrote in a long Facebook post that it was undemocratic to challenge the citizenship of voters.

“As both a Big D Democrat and a small d democrat, it’s also disturbing to me that progressives were the ones screaming about credentials and illegal voters,” Chan wrote. “Remember it’s the Republican party that engages in voter suppression, not us. We want people to participate in a Democracy. That is a good thing.”

Chan also said if progressives wanted to combat buses filled with voters, that progressives should bring their own buses filled with voters.

Ultimately, progressives in Assembly District 17 won eight of the 14 available seats, with moderate candidates taking the remaining six. In AD 19, progressives and moderates endorsed some of the same delegates, and 14 members were elected to those delegate seats.

Walker acknowledged there were problems, but said they arose from the unanticipated growth of voters.

“But that’s the point of all of this,” Walker said, “to get people active in our party and get people ready for the war against Trump.”

Below are the winners for Assembly Districts 17 and 19:

Assembly District 17: Laura Clark, Gladys Soto, Davi Lang, Alysabeth Alexander, Leah Pimentel, Angeles Roy, Mia Satya, Theo Ellington, Rafael Trujillo, Peter Gallotta, Wade Woods, Todd David, Benjamin Becker, Nima Rahimi.

Assembly District 19: Wendy Aragon, Amy Bacharach, Brigitte Davila, Maureen Dugan, Amy Erb, Kelly Groth, Li Lovett, Ian Fregosi, Xavier Aubuchon-Mendoza, Brandon Harami, Jonathan Lyens, Gabriel Medina, William Walker, Alan Wong.

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