Frequent Elections are Good for Cities

by on November 3, 2015

Our best wishes for a full recovery for former Mayor Art Agnos, whose 1987 campaign inspired a new generation of activism

After writing that the key ballot measures for San Francisco’s November 3 election—Prop F’s restrictions on short-term rentals and Prop I’s moratorium on Mission market rate housing—would return to face voters in 2016, I was asked if such frequent elections were good for San Francisco.

It’s a good question. San Francisco is holding its third election in less than two years and will ultimately hold five elections from June 2014-November 2016.

Frequent elections are great for paid political consultants. But do they help cities solve problems and govern?

Actually, they do.

For all the complaints about endless campaigns and massive campaign advertising,  nothing rivals elections for promoting civic engagement. This is even true in activist oriented San Francisco, where elections greatly expand people’s daily involvement in the political process.

Elections and Politics

Seeing the photos over the past months of people excited to be working on Aaron Peskin’s D3 campaign reminded me how much more people like working on election campaigns than legislative efforts. Elections provide a key social component, and are better at giving volunteers a feeling that they are part of a broader movement.

Legislative campaigns are typically weekday affairs that leave a lot of working people unable to participate. And those that do spend most of the time sitting in a hearing room rather than directly connecting with people at their doors or on the street.

That’s why far more people in the fall of 2014 were involved in the Campos-Chiu Assembly race than in the parallel legislative campaign around short-term rentals. And why San Francisco politics in 2015 has been more dominated by the D3 Supervisors race and Props F and I than even Supervisor Jane Kim’s high profile Eviction 2.0 legislation.

Ballot Box Planning?

Criticism of frequent elections is linked to opponents of “ballot box planning.” This term is used to negatively describe ballot initiatives regulating land use, which are  invariably in every San Francisco election.

All of the heavily debated ballot measures since 2014—Prop B, the referendum on 8 Washington that June, Prop G, the anti-speculation tax, that November and Props F and I in 2015—were criticized by opponents as bad “ballot box planning.”  Multiple land use ballot measures will be on the November 2016 ballot, leaving opponents  again facing pitched electoral battles over issues they prefer be resolved legislatively.

Criticism of using ballot measures to address land use regulations ignores that while legislative process may be easier to fix, it can be even more error prone. I’ve regularly seen legislation changed on the fly at full Board of Supervisors meeting without the public or even fellow supervisors fully understanding the implications. I was involved in a major piece of legislation this year where such changes were made without the key interests behind the measure even knowing about it; they thought a different piece of legislation had passed the Board until I told them otherwise.

A well conceived land use initiative goes through as much vetting as the most carefully conceived piece of legislation.


Those frustrated by constant land use ballot battles in San Francisco should consider moving to New York City. That’s a place where 33% of the city can be upzoned for increased development without any opportunity to subject any of the rezonings to a popular vote.

I describe in The Activist’s Handbook how Brooklyn’s massive Atlantic Yards project (which includes the Barclay Center) was approved and built without any local elected official having to approve it. And given New York City’s lack of a ballot initiative process, activists were left without recourse as hundreds of residents were displaced and demolition on a massive scale proceeded.

Major projects in San Francisco typically include sufficient community benefits to avoid a ballot challenge. Absent frequent elections with the potential for land use ballot measures, project sponsors would have little incentive to provide such resources.

So while I understand people wanting some down time before San Francisco’s 2016 election cycle begins, candidates are already running and initiatives are being conceived. Election campaigns bring a positive energy that makes every day seem vital, and that’s good for any city.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. His new book is The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco


Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw's latest book is Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America. He is the author of four prior books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. He is also the author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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