Low turnout, high impact: Takeaways from S.F. Election Day

‘San Franciscans spend years debating cars in the park. But they failed to show up at the ballot box’

Election Day in San Francisco. You could smell it in the air. The usual mix of anticipation and apathy.

From the polling venues in the Avenues, to the grandeur of City Hall, to the hipster election parties in the Mission District, The City’s politically engaged came out in small but enthusiastic numbers to participate in the “Consolidated Special Municipal Election.”

If that doesn’t get you going, I don’t know what will.

City Elections Director John Arntz told me he was expecting turnout to come in around 25% of registered voters, which is roughly half of what we saw in November’s gubernatorial recall election.

This, of course, blows my mind. San Franciscans are willing to spend months, if not years, debating whether we should be allowed to roller skate free of cars in Golden Gate Park. But they can’t be bothered to show up at the ballot box. To make matters worse, this was the first year that all registered voters were mailed a ballot to their homes. All they had to do was fill out a few dots and mail it back!

Must be all the empty houses we keep hearing about. Or maybe it just wasn’t that exciting an election.

But for education wonks, you couldn’t ask for anything more. San Francisco Unified School District board members Alison Collins, Gabriela López and Faauuga Moliga were all recalled following a cascade of controversies and perceived mismanagement during the pandemic. The move to rename a number of San Francisco schools, such as Abraham Lincoln High School and Dianne Feinstein Elementary School, sparked the initial outrage. The inability to get kids back in school triggered the avalanche.

For political wonks, you could ask for a lot more from this election. The eastern half of The City got to vote on the next Assembly representative from District 17, the combatants of which included Matt Haney, David Campos, Bilal Mahmood and Thea Selby. By all expectations, and if no one receives 50% of the vote, this election will be decided in yet another election, a run-off slated for April.

People vote in The City’s special election at San Francisco City Hall on Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022. The SF Department of Elections said the turnout was low, with approximately 25 percent or voters casting ballots. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

People vote in The City’s special election at San Francisco City Hall on Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022. The SF Department of Elections said the turnout was low, with approximately 25 percent or voters casting ballots. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

Truly devoted

Now that we’ve set the table, let’s get down to the main course.

Despite the lukewarm participation, those who made it to the polls Tuesday were of the passionate variety. What got them out?

Jay Arellano, 32, who lives South of Market, said he “hasn’t been following politics,” but “it was just about being responsible and doing the right thing.” He voted no on the recall because “the process is wasteful.” For the Assembly, he “went for my fellow Latino brother (Campos). I hope he does a good job.”

Tutone Lyles-Naranjo, who lives in the Mission, came to City Hall to drop off her mail-in ballot. “I’m thinking about freedom, baby!” she shouted as she walked down the steps. She felt strongly about “kicking the autocrats out of office.” Amen … I think.

My favorite voter of the day was Arianna Inferra of North Beach. The 23-year-old came out in support of Haney, who she applauded for his work on Prop. C, a homeless spending initiative. “He’s a huge advocate for spreading the wealth.” She warmed this hardened cynic’s heart by saying, “My grandma always said, ‘Never miss an election or your voice will never be heard.’”

Taking home the golden ballot box for “Most Inspirational Voter” was Ron Carter, a 70-year-old homeless man who is living at a shelter South of Market on 8th Street. He was recently evicted from a single-room hotel and has been fighting to open his own shelter, affiliated with the “Praise Be Found Homeless Foundation of America.”

Praise a homeless San Franciscan who found the time to vote. And shame on the 75 percenters.

Carter was pro-Haney and anti-recall, citing recent guidance he received from the NAACP on the education measure. He’s also bullish on his chances of reclaiming a permanent residence: “I’m fighting my way out. I’m doing everything I can.”

Looking for billionaires

Once the polls closed at 8 p.m., it was off to The City’s election party scene, which was dominated this year by pro-recall groups such as GrowSF, which had its own event at Teeth in the Mission.

When the early results showed a landslide for the recall, the crowd went nuts. When the organizers confessed they had spent all their money and there was no open bar, someone yelled out, “I thought there’d be billionaires here!”

Indeed, some strange, rich money has flowed into San Francisco politics of late. But GrowSF is pretty grassroots.

“I’ve lived in San Francisco for 15 years,” said Sachin Agarwal, 41, an Inner Sunset resident and co-founder of the organization, which has positioned itself a few notches toward the center of The City’s progressive political base. “I’m raising two kids here. And I want to see a city that’s growing and thriving and welcoming. More people here want people to be able to raise families in The City. And to do that we need to invest more in housing and public transportation and safety in public schools. And so we take a broad view on what it means to live in a dense, urban place.”

His co-founder, Steven Buss, 35, said, “I moved to San Francisco in 2016. It was extremely difficult to find a place to live. And that made me think it shouldn’t be so hard to live in a place with so much opportunity. I got involved in local politics pretty much immediately. And I’ve been involved ever since. … I believe that getting regular people involved in voting, and getting better information out there to people, can really turn The City around.”

I see Buss and Agarwal as the vanguard of a newly emerging voting bloc in San Francisco, one that skews more to the middle and wants common sense solutions to intractable issues like housing, education and homelessness.

Whether there’s a lasting appetite for a more moderate view in a city whose politics have been dominated by progressive ideals for years remains to be seen. But Tuesday felt like a bit of a canary in the coal mine. The problem with their vision? Coal mines don’t have district elections.

They also don’t have four elections a year, which is what San Francisco voters face in 2022. I asked Arntz whether we’re asking too much of voters.

He thinks the April runoff will draw a crowd, because “voters can focus on two candidates more easily than four.” The June election will “have local measures and people will be engaged.”

“Then you got the general election in November,” he added. “That’s always a big draw for people.”

Spoken like a true elections official.

If the scene at Manny’s, a political hotspot and cafe in the Mission, was any indication, there are definitely pockets of major engagement in The City’s complex political scene. Another group of school board recall supporters was in full swing as the numbers came in.

Speakers were calling on the crowd to help surface candidates to replace the outgoing board members. Their message to the remaining school board members?

“You’re on notice!” shouted Autumn Looijen, co-lead of Recall SF School Board, the parent group that had put on the event.

“Now you have a clear and absolutely resounding fail!” said Siva Raj, Looijen’s partner and also a co-lead of the movement. “You not only failed on your job, you failed our children! Apologize to the kids who have fallen behind! Start supporting them now!”

Hoops and hollers rang through the room.

David Thompson, a gay dad who was heartbroken to take his son out of the system he loved, took the stage and summed it all up.

“Just put a crazy queen and an angry Indian together, you don’t know what’s going to happen in this city!”

Only in San Francisco, folks.

Editor’s note: Welcome to The Arena, a column from The Examiner’s Al Saracevic in which he explores San Francisco’s playing field, from politics and technology to sports and culture. Send your tips, quips and quotes to asaracevic@sfexaminer.com

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