Voter turnout looking low in primary election

Number of ballots returned down by about 12 percent from last primary election

With roughly 22 percent of mail-in-ballots returned, San Francisco’s voter turnout was looking low going into Tuesday’s primary election — lower than at the same time during the 2016 primary by roughly 12 percent, according to Department of Election’s figures.

Fewer than 86,000 mail-in ballots had been returned as of Monday night, which is roughly 15,000 fewer votes than had been submitted the day before 2016’s primary.

But this year nearly 90,000 more mail-in-ballots were issued than in 2016, making the drop in mail-in ballots returned even more noteworthy.

Department of Elections Director John Arntz said he would have expected at least 110,000 ballots to have been returned by now.

“Election day is going to set the turnout,” said Arntz, who said he expects 50,000 to 70,000 mail-in ballots to be turned in to polling stations on election.

So far 4,500 people have showed up to vote in person, including at least 800 on Monday alone.

With the Democratic presidential candidate field shrinking rapidly, some voters may have been waiting for a clearer image of the field before casting their votes, according to long-time San Francisco Democratic political strategist Jim Stearns.

“People are seeing the obvious candidates are dropping out,” said Stearns. “People are holding on to their ballots.”

In addition, a new California law moved this year’s primary from June to March, leading some to fear voters could miss the deadline.

Additional rule changes also mean people registered with a political party other than that of their candidate of choice, or people registered as independents, would have needed to request the appropriate ballot if they wished to vote by mail.

“The department did all they could to advertise the change,” said Matthew Selby, a clerk with the Department of Elections.

The 2016 primary saw 56.5 percent of registered voters turn out citywide. The most recent election in November 2019 had 41.6 percent turnout. San Francisco has just over 504,000 registered voters.

So far, Districts 7 and 8, which include the Lakeshore, Twin Peaks, Noe Valley and Castro neighborhoods, lead the way with nearly 25 percent of ballots returned. District 10, which includes much of the Bayview, trails with less than 20 percent returned.

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