SF’s Anti-Democratic Prop D

by on October 11, 2016

Jesse Jackon campaigned against low-turnout elections

Low-Turnout Elections are Not “Progressive”

I understand why San Francisco’s progressive establishment is backing Prop D, which changes the process of filling vacant supervisor seats. What I cannot accept, however, are claims that an initiative promoting low-turnout, special off year elections is more “progressive” or “democratic” than the current system.

Under Prop D, Mayor Lee would fill the seat vacated by either Jane Kim or Scott Wiener’s election to the State Senate with an interim appointee who could not seek election to the seat. This appointee would then be replaced by the candidate elected in a May or June 2017 special election. That winner would then run again in November 2018.

Progressives are backing Prop D for two reasons.

First, Supervisor John Avalos strongly wanted Prop D on the ballot. Under the rules for progressive unity that Aaron Peskin promoted soon after being elected to the Board in 2000, Avalos’ desires needed to be satisfied so that his fellow supervisors could expect reciprocal support for their pet measures.

Second, progressives do not want Mayor Lee picking the next interim D6 or D8 supervisor. Under current law Lee’s interim appointment would last until the November 2018 election. Progressives believe—notwithstanding the contrary evidence provided by Peskin’s defeat of Julie Christensen and London Breed’s defeat of Christina Olague—that Lee’s interim choice would likely win a full term.

While Avalos claims that he has wanted to change the procedures for supervisor appointments for years, not a single supervisor raised the issue when David Chiu faced David Campos in the 2014 State Assembly race. That race also guaranteed that Mayor Lee would make an interim appointment.

Low-Turnout Elections are Anti-Progressive

The core impact of Prop D is to elect the next D6 or D8 supervisor through an off year special election. If you think such low-turnout elections are progressive, you need to reread American history.

Low-turnout special elections were created to keep people in power who could otherwise not win a high turnout election.  There was also a racial component. Reverend Jesse Jackson was so committed to eliminating run-off elections in the South that he put the issue at the center of his 1984 and 1988 presidential election campaigns.

San Francisco progressives recognized the dangers of low-turnout special elections when they backed ranked choice voting (RCV). The whole idea of RCV is to ensure every vote counts. This does not happen when only a sliver of the electorate votes in a special election. Progressives also liked that RCV also eliminates the costs of special elections; progressives prefer spending millions of dollars on services, not special elections.

San Francisco progressives also recognized the problem with low-turnout elections when they backed an initiative eliminating San Francisco’s post-presidential local elections (held in 2005, 2009, 2013 but not in 2017). Progressives understood that these low-turnout elections were structurally anti-democratic, disproportionately bringing affluent voters to the polls while tenants stay home.

So Prop D conflicts with longstanding progressive views about ensuring fair elections.It also puts someone in office for at least six months who is entirely unaccountable to anyone; that’s hardly democratic.

Prop D offers a much less democratic approach than current law. Its backers should stop insulting our intelligence by insisting otherwise.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. He discusses Tenderloin political empowerment in 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

More Posts

Filed under: San Francisco News