Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
This year, voters in the city must consider 25 different local ballot measures. Who is this helping?
On Election Day, voters in San Francisco will decide whether they want to establish the office of the Public Advocate. Proposition H, the ballot measure in question, outlines the office and its duties in 50 words.
“Shall the City amend the Charter to create the position of Public Advocate, responsible for investigating and attempting to resolve public complaints concerning City services and programs; and shall it be City policy to provide the Public Advocate with sufficient funding and a support staff of at least 25 people?”
Sounds good, right? What voter is against investigating and resolving public complaints over city services? Especially a Public Advocate with “sufficient” funding—i.e., just enough, however much that is.
In context, however, creating a Public Advocate might not be in the best interests of San Francisco residents. In its weighty election guide, the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association advises voters to say no to Proposition H, noting that—alongside Propositions D, L, and M—this ballot measure would strip powers from the office of the mayor. Taken together, this suite of measures would upset the balance of local authority arrived at by the last revision of the City Charter in 1995, the result of another, more direct and comprehensive ballot initiative.
This year, San Francisco voters must weigh 25 different local ballot measures, from Proposition A (a bond for local schools) to Proposition X (a complicated zoning change affecting displaced manufacturing and arts facilities in the Mission and South of Market neighborhoods). There’s also Measure RR, a bond supporting the Bay Area Rapid Transit system backed by a property tax across the three-county BART District. Plus there are another 17 statewide ballot propositions* on which all Californians must render a verdict.
California’s statewide measures range from highly technical questions over health care fee structuring (Proposition 52, Proposition 61) to intensely charged moral subjects such as pornography (Proposition 60) and capital punishment (Proposition 66). Several of San Francisco’s local initiatives stray far into the weeds, too: for example, Proposition P alters the requirements for competitive bidding for affordable-housing projects on city-owned property. How many voters can possibly say what’s required under the status quo?
Direct democracy has long meant electoral madness in California. But the insanity runs extra deep in San Francisco, where residents have voted on more than 260 ballot measures since 2000—not even counting statewide initiatives. San Francisco voters must weigh 42 total ballot measures on Tuesday, almost twice as many as their counterparts in Los Angeles. That’s a ludicrous abdication of public authority and representative decision-making.
Plus, only a sliver of San Francisco voters even vote in local elections. In the last mayoral election, just 32 percent of eligible voters showed up at the polls. While that’s a decent showing compared to other cities nationwide, it’s hardly representative: the median voting age in the last mayoral election was 52 (versus a median adult age of 43). According to research from Portland State University, in the 2015 mayoral election, San Francisco voters over the age of 65 had four times the electoral power of Millennial voters.
Many more voters show up for a presidential election than for an off-year election, of course. Leaders and advocates in San Francisco know that, so they pack presidential-election ballots with measures of all stripes. There were 26 ballot measures on the ballot for the November 2008 election, 20 measures for the November 2002 mid-terms, and 18 measures for the November 2000 elections. Off-year elections yield fewer measures; important elections attract vastly more. In 2016, the result is an over-stuffed and overwhelming ballot.
San Francisco voters cannot reasonably navigate propositions that are so often vague and contradictory. What happens to the competitive-bidding requirements set out by Proposition P if voters pass Proposition M, which creates a new Housing and Development Commission to oversee the existing Office of Housing and Community Development and Office of Economic and Workforce Development? Why did four city supervisors submit Proposition Q on the ballot (prohibiting tent encampments on public sidewalks) when the Board of Supervisors could pass such a bill with a simple majority?
Then there’s the question of how local initiatives intersect with state and regional policies and goals. San Francisco isn’t alone in weighing a roster of ballot initiatives. In Cupertino, California, for example, voters will weigh two ballot measures that will make it more it more difficult for the city to approve large development projects and make strides toward greater density, as San Francisco reports. Every local initiative interlocks with every other locality’s initiatives, in ways that can be supportive or detrimental to the entire Bay Area. But local ballot measures never reflect broader regional motivations.
Ballot initiatives are fine for deciding things like, say, a new city flag design. Ballot initiatives are even appropriate for a few large decisions, including bond measures. But for the micro-governance of a city, direct democracy is a macro-level headache. San Francisco cannot solve the very real problems it faces on homelessness, affordable housing, transit, and other crises until it stops putting every question to the public, often all at once.
*Correction: There are 17 statewide propositions on the Election Day ballot, not 18. One other statewide proposition appeared on the California primary ballot in June.