Musings on a No-Show Election
months ago “they” announced that the implosion of three buildings, two
in New York and one in Washington, had changed Americans forever. As
flags sprouted from windows and car antennas, commentators heralded the
new patriotic energy that was reputedly sweeping the country.
Six months later, in the aftermath of Tuesday’s primary
election, it appears that little has actually changed. People waving
flags do not automatically translate into voters. Apathy rolls toward
the polls like gooey chocolate sauce running down the side of an ice
In San Francisco, registered voters account for
approximately half the population. Of them, approximately 27 percent –
one-eighth of the population – managed to cast ballots. Therefore –
follow my math – even in a landslide victory, less than 10 percent of
the population would have elected a candidate or passed a proposition.
San Francisco is, of course, not unique in its low voter
turnout, not is it the worst. But because San Francisco is known
throughout the country for the lively political participation of its
people, it’s painful to discover that its electorate is as naked as any
you‘ll find elsewhere.
Undoubtedly, a close examination would reveal many of
the same electoral ills infecting voters here as elsewhere – a general
distrust of the political process, corruption weariness, a feeling that
“my vote won’t make any difference.” But the symptoms are a little
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Despite the city’s reputation for a wide open system,
close observers of local political processes quickly discover that the
cast of characters is limited and repetitive. Ward McAllister’s “Four
Hundred” socially acceptable citizens have been replaced by a small
number of politically active residents. Whether they’re government
officials or not, you know their names: they testify frequently before
city committee hearings, and their opinions frequently appear in city
But their actual numbers are small, and I’ll wager that
many San Franciscans do not feel that these people represent them.
Whether in fact they do is moot, for it’s rare to see a
full treatment of their activities in the press. And despite our
much-vaunted Sunshine Act, much transpires behind closed doors.
Take, for example, Chris Daly’s recent summit on
homelessness, which received little advance publicity and distorted
reports afterward. Ilene Lelchuk, writing for the Chronicle, emphasized
its rowdy aspects: “As hard as organizers of San Francisco's summit on
homelessness tried to keep the discourse civil yesterday, a passionate
crowd of advocates for homeless people booed and hissed speakers who
called for bans on public urination and changes in welfare checks.” The
Examiner dismissed the meeting as “Politics, As Usual,” with Nina Wu
focusing not on the event but on the mayor’s absence.
Neither paper managed to explain that the summit’s
emphasis on the Continuum of Care was not a case of same-old, same old,
but a reiteration of support for the service agencies and homeless
people who had compiled it. Neither managed to explain that the
Continuum of Care, which the supervisors had voted for and the mayor had
vetoed, provided a comprehensive plan for alleviating homeless in San
Francisco long before Gavin Newsom or Tony Hall began to re-invent the
Some 750 interested people gathered in Herbst Theater to
discuss one of the city’s most pressing problems, and the media never
gave the general public an inkling of what they said. But then, Chris
Daly didn’t waste too much energy in publicizing his event either – it
took a last-minute op-ed piece in the Chronicle by Angela Alioto to
alert ordinary folks that the summit was about to occur.
I wonder, though, how much PR work we should expect
participants in the political process to do. Isn’t it the job of a free
press in a free society to provide accurate information about the
workings of the people’s government?
If so, the local press has failed miserably. Take, as
another example, the travails of Proposition A before the election. The
“hoodlumistic” Prop A, as Warren Hinckle called it, proposed a system of
preferential voting that would create “instant runoffs.” An editorial in
the Chronicle called it “a confusing and potentially unwieldy scheme.”
In a news story, Ilene Lelchuk continued the theme: “Proposition A could
draw more people to the polls – or it could make voters dizzy with
confusion.” It was not until after the voters approved the
proposition that Rachel Gordon, writing in the Chronicle, presented a
straightforward explanation of how it would work.
So how does this wide open political town function? By a
small cadre of political activists – both “machine” and “anti-machine” –
doing their own thing, while the general electorate has little idea of
what’s going on. By a small group of media representatives doing their
own thing, while the general electorate has little idea of what’s going
on. No wonder the public has little interest in voting.
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The mayor and the Chronicle have embarked on a campaign
to dissipate our political apathy and re-create public excitement about
the city of San Francisco. Almost immediately after the election, they
announced a five-day festival honoring Herb Caen, the man who created a
mythical city that its citizens and the rest of the world came to
believe. Caen’s Baghdad by the Bay is witty, urbane, civilized – and out
of date. I fear that the celebration at the beginning of April will only
serve to reinforce San Franciscan’s feelings that their leaders’
activities have little relevance for them.
As part of the program, the Chronicle announced a “write
alike” contest, with a prize to be given to the writer whose style comes
closest to Caen‘s. The entrants may be in for a shock. Several years
ago, I immersed myself in the Sackamenna Kid’s columns and tried to
one of my own. Never even came close. When the guy was on, he was
But what about the prospect of Caenomania saving the
city? As part of preparation for this article, I went out in search of a
book to peruse. I stopped in a neighborhood independent bookstore that
shall remain nameless – one of those little stores that prides itself on
knowledge ability and helpfulness.
“Do you have anything by Herb Caen?” I asked the
She looked puzzled. “What was that name – Herb King?”
Carefully I spelled it out.
Carefully she spelled it out, as she entered it into the
No, she reported, there was nothing, except The Cablecar
and the Dragon, Caen’s book for kids.
What, I wondered as I left the store, were entrants in
the contest supposed to use as a guide – nostalgia?
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astonishing thing about this city is that even a small percentage of the
electorate continues to do their civic duty. Yet they do, determinedly
While a lot of you were out playing Mary last Tuesday,
finding a place near the center of action, I chose the less dramatic
route of Martha: I served as a poll worker. I encountered at first hand
the extremely flawed system that the Department of Elections was forced
to work within (SF Call, March 4, 2002: Make Your Vote Count; Or, Make
Them Count Your Vote). I also encountered a number of intelligent,
dedicated volunteers who arrived at 6:00 am, kept their cool throughout
a long day, and still managed to tally up those endless piles of
different ballots after closing time at 8:00 pm.
But the surprise was the voters. I watched people who
could barely read English, or barely read at all, spend 45 minutes in
the voting booth, bent over their ballot, meticulously filling it out. I
watched old people arrive hand-in-hand with a grandchild who would act
as their translator. I watched young parents proudly show their own
children what it meant to vote.
For these people, the act of voting was a labor of love.
These people were proud of being part of the democratic process, or at
least what they thought was a democratic process.
They didn’t know that their precious democracy had
constricted into an oligarchy, into government by a few. They didn’t
realize that the much-touted progressive victory of the past few years
would not become a reality until every citizen turns out to vote.