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San Francisco Votes on More Stuff Than Anyone. It's a Disaster and We Love It and Won't Stop.

If some democracy is good, more must be better, right? Right?


There are days when Daniel Biasbas feels like he has the weight of the world on his shoulders. And there’s a good reason for that: He’s a San Francisco postman, and every election season he has the backbreaking duty of delivering vote “pamphlets” the size of a Sears, Roebuck catalog.

Hauling around San Francisco’s swollen ballot guides is no easy task. Once the voter pamphlet eclipses 200 pages—which this year’s all but surely will—Biasbas can no longer easily fit more than one in his satchel along with the regular mail. (“Too bulky!”) Instead he has to park and repark his van three or more times on each block of his Bernal Heights route, loading up a new batch and staggering house to house with them. It requires several extra days and, often, overtime to disseminate San Francisco’s steroid-injected ballot guides citywide. 

This November, Biasbas is going to be even more slumped over than normal. In addition to a record 17 state measures, San Franciscans will be deciding six different supervisorial contests, filling a slot on the Superior Court, voting in a state senate race, weighing in on House and Senate contests, anointing the next president, and, on top of all that, wading through a dizzying 25 (as of press time) local ballot measures—the most since 1993, when we voted on 28 (!) propositions and likely induced at least one letter-carrier workers’ comp claim via a 241-page voter pamphlet. This blizzard of initiatives hails from developers and realtors and, most of all, our elected officials—all of whom have their own motivations for deluging us with democracy.

San Franciscans have long been overtaxed come election season. One reason for this is that voters are mandated to weigh in on most any alteration to our city charter—and you’d be surprised at the level of arcana in that charter. In 1984, for example, voters decreed that the cops who rode Honda motorcycles deserved the same level of compensation as those riding Harley-Davidsons. In 1979, the people became the arbiter of whether a sole city worker—the chief administrator’s confidential secretary—should be an at-will employee. (By a tally of 82,363 to 78,920, this matter was decided in the affirmative.)

Sticking the voters with dozens of initiatives, says Stanford political science professor Bruce Cain, is a terrible idea, but naysayers are accused of being antidemocratic. “It’s an article of faith that more democracy is always better,” he says. “Those of us who say, ‘You know, there might be a limit to this,’ are kind of the skunk at the party.” When asked how a voter can be expected to parse the details of important proposals when it’s nearly impossible to even count them, UCLA urban planning professor Stephanie Pincetl simply says, “You can’t.” San Francisco State political science professor emeritus Rich DeLeon gasps when he hears the litany of initiatives San Franciscans figure to be voting on. “It’s almost impossible to focus” on so many issues, he says. “And that includes focusing on the money that chases after these issues and the people on the ground working them.”

San Franciscans,
it turns out, may well vote on more stuff than anyone, anywhere. We certainly vote on more things than the Swiss, whose direct democratic system furnished the model for California’s. In fact, says Swiss political scientist Wolf Linder, that nation’s voters rarely face more than five initiatives per election. This year, San Franciscans will be voting on 10 charter amendments alone. “We have the most user-friendly direct democracy in the country,” Cain affirms. The reductio ad absurdum of this voting mania was the final measure on the ballot of that surreal, 28-initiative 1993 election, Proposition BB. (That’s what comes after Props. Z and AA.) This proposition was set in motion when SFPD officer Bob Geary’s superiors told him that he couldn’t take his crowd-pleasing ventriloquist’s dummy with him on his beat. Geary gathered 9,964 signatures and qualified the Police Puppet measure for the ballot: “Shall it be the policy of the people of San Francisco to allow Police Officer Bob Geary to decide when he may use his puppet Brendan O’Smarty while on duty?” Fifty-one percent of voters selected “yes.”

It warrants mentioning that in both this year and 1993, only four of the items on the ballots ended up there as a result of citizen signature-gathering. An overwhelming majority were thrown before the voters by our elected lawmakers—who are saddling us with an awful lot of laws to make.

The year 2016, it turns out, is a perfect storm for an expansive ballot. The perceived weakness and passive leadership style of Mayor Ed Lee has emboldened both opponents and allies to put forth a slew of measures that wrest away mayoral power. Termed-out supervisor David Campos is pushing hard for a public advocate position that could, in essence, allow him (or whoever else wins the seat) to serve as a deputy mayor. Supervisor Norman Yee is carrying legislation to force supervisorial appointments onto the Municipal Transportation Agency board. Supervisor John Avalos is plugging a measure that would require special elections when supervisor seats become vacant (currently they’re filled by mayoral appointment). Even Lee’s ostensible backers have undercut him by calling for fiscal set-asides, reducing mayoral budgeting authority: The “Dignity Fund” pushed by Supervisor Malia Cohen will lock in baseline spending for seniors and disabled adults, then mandate $33 million in additional funding over the next decade. 

Charter-related minutiae will always keep the ballot cluttered. But make no mistake: The ballot barriers in San Francisco are particularly low. The mayor, with a stroke of his pen, can submit items to the voters; it takes just 4 of the 11 supervisors to do the same. And for the labor unions and Officer Bob Gearys of the world, our signature-gathering threshold is a pushover: just 5 percent of the number of votes cast in the most recent mayoral election, which often works out to fewer than 10,000 signatures. Other cities make it considerably harder to load up the ballot: While San Francisco voters will pore over 25 initiatives this year, San Jose residents might—might—vote on 7.

The relative ease of getting measures on the ballot enables politicians who have—surprise!—political motivations for going to the voters. The best local example of this was when Supervisor Gavin Newsom introduced the Care Not Cash measure in 2002 and won the mayor’s race a year later. “Gavin wasn’t as prolific a legislator as others,” recalls his campaign manager, Jim Ross. “But every voter knew he was working on stuff, because every election he’d have a measure on the ballot.” If not for Care Not Cash, “Gavin would not have been mayor,” notes one of his political contemporaries. “The big thing is, on ballot measures, there’s no contribution limit. You can be blunt with donors: ‘Hey, if you like me, this helps me elevate myself!’” 

In hyper-partisan San Francisco, the ballot is often really a political cudgel. Antidevelopment forces gather signatures to pressure developers to compromise. Supervisors introduce potential ballot measures merely to cajole opponents into negotiating on legislation. Sometimes things work, sometimes they don’t—but it’s rarely neat. Ideological arguments grow muddled in such an initiative-rich environment. In 2010, moderate supes decried Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi’s attempt to electorally mandate police foot patrols as overreaching. Six years later, however, Wiener and three fellow- moderate cosponsors are pushing a measure to create and staff a police “Neighborhood Crime Unit.”

Politicians sometimes get caught up in a political arms race, too. Wiener and his state senate opponent, Supervisor Jane Kim, are incentivized to throw initiatives to voters, lest either look less busy than the other. (Each tossed multiple measures onto the ballot.) “If you didn’t have so many elected officials fighting for their survival, there wouldn’t be the same impetus to put something on the ballot,” says a longtime city political adviser. Candidates’ pet measures can, of course, be a vehicle for receiving unlimited campaign donations. “It’s a tool they have. They are using it.”

But even though
the voting public bemoans 200-page voting guides and Election Day servings of ballot alphabet soup, we actually like this soup. Multiple measures intended to short-circuit the initiative process have been defeated: Most recently, Wiener’s 2011 Prop. E, which would have allowed elected officials to gut or modify measures passed by the voters, was rejected by 67 percent of the electorate. A 2013 Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) study found that while 59 percent of state voters feel we vote on too many things, 72 percent of us still think it’s a good thing to be voting on too many things. A 2004 PPIC analysis revealed that, between 1990 and 2000, 54 would-be local propositions were circulated in San Francisco. No other California city had more than 15.

The city has become so accustomed to feuding by ballot that when Supervisors Mark Farrell and Aaron Peskin compromised and headed off a measure on in-law units, the deed was hailed by the Chronicle as a minor miracle. “When you put something on the ballot,” San Francisco Planning and Urban Research executive director Gabriel Metcalf told the paper, “you don’t have to compromise with the other side the way you do in representative democracy.”

That complaint is valid—but hardly new. Political scientists V.O. Key and Winston Crouch declared the initiative “deficient as a legislative device in that there is no opportunity in the process of formulation of a measure for its opponents to be heard.” They wrote that in 1939. If this city and state have, indeed, gone to hell, the descent has been gradual.

In 1911, California progressives brought us direct democracy in hopes of neutralizing special interests, creating a simplified “short ballot,” and holding legislators accountable. If anything, the opposite has occurred: Special interests have co-opted the process, ballots are lengthier than a George R.R. Martin novel, and assigning accountability feels like piecing together a bomb scene. 

We’ve created a feedback loop: We complain about ballot overload but punish politicians who propose reducing the spectrum of what we vote upon. It’s a crisis of both leadership and followership; we lose confidence in representative democracy while rewarding representatives for behaving in ways that will, inevitably, lead to further loss of confidence.

So Daniel Biasbas’s satchel is not going to get lighter anytime soon. But at least he doesn’t have to take his work home with him: Though he delivers mail in San Francisco, he resides in Daly City. The San Mateo County voter pamphlets sent to his home, he says, really are just that: pamphlets. The 2012 edition was a svelte 40 pages. They’re small enough that he doesn’t even feel the need to read them. “I don’t pay much attention,” he says. “I already know what to vote for.”


Originally published in the September issue of San Francisco

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