San Francisco voter turnout could shatter historic record

Nearly 60 percent of registered voters have already cast their ballot

San Francisco’s top election official says voter turnout this year could break a city record that hasn’t been touched in six decades.

The last time 86 percent of The City’s registered voters cast a ballot was in 1960.

According to John Arntz, director of the San Francisco Department of Elections, early voting numbers suggest that that high mark could soon be surpassed due to a presidential race widely considered one of the most important elections in recent history, which will decide who will lead the country through — and hopefully out of — the coronavirus pandemic and an economic recession.

But down ballot in San Francisco are a number of supervisorial contests and ballot measures that will help shape how The City emerges from this crisis and answer key questions about its future including funding for basic public services, survival of small businesses, the future of public transit and whether corporations should foot more of the bill.

Early data shows San Franciscans are not missing out on their chance to weigh in. Over 537,000 of vote-by-mail ballots were issued this year, and as of November 1, 317,605 of them had been returned either by mail or by ballot drop-off, accounting for nearly 60 percent of all San Francisco residents currently registered to vote.

The overwhelming number of ballots issued by-mail this year, a total of 334,694, were to registered Democrats. The next largest group were those who noted “no party preference,” for a total of 151,184 ballots.

Registered Republicans accounted for only 35,745 of recipients who received a ballot in the mail.

Arntz said this is the “highest ever in The City’s history at this point in the election cycle.”

By comparison, during the last presidential election in 2016, there were 394,972 ballots sent out by mail and a total of 266,059 were returned, accounting for 63.47 percent of all the votes cast either in-person or by-mail, on Election Day or early.

Nearly 81 percent of San Francisco’s nearly 514,000 registered voters came out to cast their ballot that year, the highest in any election since that of Barack Obama eight years prior.

There are more registered voters in San Francisco — 537,549 — this year than ever before.

No more than 100,000 votes separate the total number of ballots cast in 2016 and this year’s early voting numbers going into Election Day, making the chances of closing that gap and surpassing the record turnout increasingly high.

While other cities around the country have reported long lines at polling centers, difficulties with voting-by-mail, limited alternatives to voting in-person and the threat of their ballot not being counted, San Francisco has, to date, been largely free of those complications.

Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill in June to make voting easier, enacting a number of temporary changes to the voting process that make it easier for many to vote without having to go to a crowded polling center amidst growing concerns around safety and health during the coronavirus pandemic.

Every registered voter in the state received a ballot in the mail ahead of Election Day, a key reason for the uptick in the number of ballots issued compared to years past.

The bill also requires county officials to count any ballot received within 17 days of election, a two-week extension from the prior cutoff.

Arntz said there have been no lines during the day at any of the ballot drop-off boxes or at the Voting Center, set up outside of the Bill Graham Auditorium for people to register to vote, obtain replacement ballots, pick up or drop off mail-in ballots, receive assistance with the process or vote in person.

To further the risks of crowds, San Francisco also authorized 588 neighborhood polling places, at least one per precinct, that will be open on election day for 13 hours from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. They range from public libraries and the Chase Center to home garages and, for the first time this year, a bar, the Eagle in SoMA.

The San Francisco Department of Elections publishes daily updates on voter turnout. Though it’s long made this information available to the public, tracking early voting has become something of a sport this year in an election plagued by pandemic concerns.

Chris Arvin, a local transit advocate, put together perhaps the spiffiest map of San Francisco’s election data out there. It breaks down The City into all of its precincts and directly populates the map with the latest precinct-specific data, adjusting their coloring to various shades of blue depending on how many people have voted. Darker blue means higher turnout, lighter blue means lower.

The highest turnout so far, according to Arvin’s map, seems to be concentrated in the center of The City near the Castro, Twin Peaks, Noe Valley and Forest Hill, with some precincts already surpassing 70 percent turnout as of the data collected on November 1.

Other pockets of high turnout are around Pacific Heights, Bernal Heights and adjacent to the Presidio.

Moving away from the center of The City, turnout rates start to decrease, relatively speaking.

Some precincts in Bayview Hunters Point have yet to top 40 percent turnout. Others in the Mission, the Tenderloin and the Lake Merced area, for example, hover in the low-to-mid forty percentile range.

“There are also some correlations, just looking at visual maps between income and where the highest turnout is, which I think is something interesting to explore more,” Arvin said, adding he’s planning to work on additional tools that will allow people to compare election turnout and results among various demographic groups citywide.

Arntz also said the Voting Center has been the most popular site for people to cast their vote. The number of ballots received at the drop-off location in each of the supervisorial districts has been similar across locations, he said.

The Department of Elections announced it would release the first preliminary summary of election results at approximately 8:45 p.m. Tuesday night that will provide results from the vote-by-mail ballots “received and processed” before Election Day.

At that time, it will also issue a preliminary Statement of the Vote, ranked-choice reports for appropriate contests and Cast Vote Record data.

Three more reports will follow throughout the course of the night that add to the vote count with results from the Election Day polling places.

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