Something Strange in the City by the Bay

According to the San Francisco Department of Elections, 503,899 men and women were registered to vote in the city at the time of the March primary election, shortly before shelter-in-place rules went into effect in the Bay Area. By the time of the November General Election, that number had grown to 521,099, of whom 86.27 percent voted in the contest. 

Terrific news, right? For some reason local politicos see high voter turnout as an unquestionably good thing, a full-proof sign of high-level civic engagement. 

Like the Soviet Union always boasted record harvest, Democratic political leadership around here likes to show record ballot harvest. And what a ballot harvest it is: in 2016, California passed AB1921, a law legalizing vote, or ballot harvest, or collection of ballots by third-party actors. This year’s electoral crop yielded the highest turnout since 1944.

The main problem with this record-setting number is that it coincided with a record-setting population drop. After the shelter-in-place rules were issued for the six Bay Area counties, people poured out of San Francisco. The exodus was massive. Between March and October the rents dropped by 31 percent, and sales taxes from brick-and-mortar stores declined by 43 percent compared to the previous year. In other California counties, these losses were somewhat made up by an increase in online commerce. In San Francisco, taxes on electronic transactions rose by a mere one percent, suggesting that the customers moved elsewhere.

The best estimate of the size of out migration comes from the United States Postal Office. During the period in question, more than 90,000 households filed a change of address form with a new ZIP code outside the city limits. While it’s possible that not all of them have departed—for instance, a resident forwards his mail to mom’s basement, but goes on to couch surf at his neighbors’—it is doubtful that such arrangements are common, particularly considering the other metrics. 

An estimated 881,549 people lived in San Francisco’s 359,673 households in mid-2020. So, we are talking about well over a quarter of the city’s population heading for an exit, hundreds of thousands of residents. If the same proportion of voters would have to be dropped from the voter rolls, we are talking about a loss of close to 126,000 individuals.

To get a sense of what’s going on, I contacted the San Francisco Department of Elections, and asked how many individuals were dropped from the voter rolls since the primary. According to the department employee Matthew Selby, “14,355 voter records were cancelled in San Francisco from 3/3/2020 to 11/3/2020.

It’s theoretically possible that the residents leaving San Francisco are overwhelmingly nonvoters. However, the wave of out-migration is spearheaded by the techies, a social cohort that is well-educated, and politically engaged. If anything, they are more likely to be registered voters than the residents remaining here. 

It’s easy to imagine how the November 2020 election could be compromised. Because of the COVID-19 scare, Governor Gavin Newsom ordered an all mail-in election. Ballots were sent to every registered voter in the state. As San Franciscans were heading for other cities and states, what happened to their ballots? According to the San Francisco election department’s own guidelines, they should be removing people from the rolls when third parties like USPS notify them of the change of address. Yet the number of records dropped seems ridiculously small, and the turnout ridiculously high

San Francisco didn’t change the outcome of the presidential contest in California, but what about the down-ballot races?

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) recently held a press conference to announce that House Democrats are poised to take about 2 million more votes than the House Republicans. Huffing and puffing from behind the mask worn for this special occasion, Pelosi declared that her party won “the House popular vote.”

Pelosi herself did pretty well. In November 2018, the San Francisco representative commanded the votes of 275,292 constituents, almost 87 percent of the total. Two years later she apparently had 281,636, or 5,344 more (I thank Trent Lapinski for pointing this out to me). This net vote gain was achieved as the city’s population declined precipitously. 

Additionally, Pelosi ran against the Democratic Socialist Shahid Buttar. Last year, Democratic Socialists in San Francisco successfully elected the George Soros-backed District Attorney Chesa Boudin. Boudin outmaneuvered the City Hall candidate Susie Loftus even though machine candidates rarely lose. Pelosi’s own challenger got over 22 percent of the vote. Compare that number to the 13.18 percent of the vote Pelosi’s opponent, Lisa Rimner, won in 2018. 

Scroll further down, and find that no member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors was elected with anywhere near 126,000 votes—I’m citing the number of people who perhaps should have been, but weren’t dropped from the rolls. At best, the supervisors pull votes in the mid-ten thousands. 

And it’s the supervisors who decide how to manage the homeless junkies, twist rent control laws a bit tighter, or retaliate against journalists exposing corruption. In other words, they make the kind of decisions that cause residents to flee the city. Smart, civically engaged citizens should be advised to follow these races rather than get emotionally invested in the presidential one in which they are not going to cast the decisive vote.

 Regardless, I find it very difficult to make sense of the San Francisco turnout numbers. The city is notoriously corrupt. Four City Hall departments are currently under federal criminal investigation. Maybe add the Department of Elections to that list?

About Katya Sedgwick

Katya Sedgwick is a writer in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her writing appears regularly at The Federalist, in Spectator USA, with the Russell Kirk Center, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter @KatyaSedgwick.

Photo: Alexander Spatari/Getty Images

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