District Elections in San Francisco

What will change and how?

Urbanist Article

History of District Elections

The change to the district election system is actually a reintroduction of a system that was used to elect supervisors more than 20 years ago. The concept was first advocated in 1972 by a group of neighborhood associations, labor unions, and public leaders who contended that district elections would result in a more inclusive Board. As a result of this growing movement, voters passed a measure in 1976 to create a system of district elections. The first district elections were held in November 1977.

These first district elections did in fact increase the diversity of the Board. San Francisco elected its first female African American supervisor, Ella Hill Hutch, its first Asian American supervisor, Gordon Lau, and its first openly gay supervisor, Harvey Milk. However, in that same election, Dan White became a supervisor. As many remember, after a political falling out, Supervisor White assassinated then-Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Milk in November 1978.

District elections remained in place for election cycle then were repealed by the voters in 1980. While other factors surely impacted the repeal of district elections, the tragic assassinations severely damaged the image of the district electoral system.

Seven years later, in November 1987, San Francisco voters considered a proposition to reintroduce district elections. The political climate at that time did not favor changing the at-large system, and the initiative failed at the polls.

More recently, in 1994, a citywide decision was made to reconsider the way that the Board of Supervisors is elected. By approving Proposition L in November of 1994, voters created an Elections Task Force that explored potential alternatives to electing the Board. This task force presented recommended alternatives to the Board of Supervisors, two of which the Board selected to put on the ballot in November 1996 for consideration by the voters. These two alternatives were district voting and "preference voting"-a complex system of ranking and reallocation of votes for each candidate.

In that 1996 election, San Francisco voters approved Proposition G, which reinstated district elections, and rejected Proposition H, which would have introduced the preference voting system. District elections, to be implemented in the year 2000, became city law.

District Election Basics Proposition G

laid out a fairly straightforward process for electing members to the Board of Supervisors. The basic tenets of the new system include:

• District Boundaries: San Francisco is segmented into eleven districts. All districts had similar overall populations in the 1990 Census (between 60,000 and 65,000 people) as mandated by state and federal election law. District boundaries were drawn to keep neighborhoods united as much as possible.

• Run-offs: If no candidate receives a majority of the votes cast within a district, the two top vote-getters qualify for a run-off election. Run-offs will be held on the second Tuesday of December of that year.

• Terms of Office: Supervisors will generally serve four-year terms. However, in order to establish a staggered rotation of supervisors (five or six supervisors elected every two years), some district supervisors elected in 2000 will serve two-year terms, while others will serve our-year terms. The clerk of the Board will determine "by lot" whether supervisors representing even numbered districts or those representing odd numbered districts must run again in 2002.

• Term Limits: District supervisors will be limited to serving two four-year terms. The two-year term from 2000 to 2002 that some supervisors will serve does not count toward term limits.

• Board President: Supervisors shall by majority vote elect one board member as president for a two-year term. This is a significant change from the current system, in which the supervisor who received the highest number of votes in the last election serves as board president.

• District Boundary Adjustments: After each 10-year census, the director of elections must report to the Board of Supervisors on whether the districts conform to federal and state law. If it is determined that district boundaries must be changed, an appointed nine-member Elections Task Force will adjust them. It is quite possible that the district lines may be adjusted after the coming 2000 Census.

• Modifications of the System: The district election system can be changed only through another citywide ballot initiative.

Political Demographics in San Francisco

Understanding the impact of district elections on local politics first requires a sense of electoral demographics in San Francisco. Most importantly, it is necessary to recognize the distinction between the city's overall residents, its registered voters, and its likely voters. Fewer than one-third of San Francisco residents actually voted in the most recent general election (in November 1999)-about 250,000 voters of almost 800,000 total residents. Residents who did not vote were either ineligible (under 18 or non-citizens), unregistered, or registered voters who simply did not participate in the election.

Significant differences exist between the demographics of San Francisco's overall population and the demographics of citywide registered and likely voters. In short, San Francisco's likely voters tend to be older and more white than the overall population of the city. In other words, older residents and white residents are more likely to vote than younger residents and people of color living in San Francisco.

The significant differences that exist between the composition of the city's overall residents and actual voters suggests that political conclusions cannot necessarily be drawn about the city's districts based on the demographics of its overall population. In order to get a true sense of the composition of the electorate in the district, one must study the composition of the district's voters. Also important to grasping the implications of district elections is understanding how voter turnout varies in San Francisco. Turnout among citywide voters has varied significantly in the last several elections; between 126,000 and 299,000 votes have been cast in various elections between 1994 and 1999. This variance in turnout is typified by relatively high turnout in November even-year elections (when San Franciscans elect a U.S. president or a California governor) and low turnout in November of odd-number years or in primary or special elections.

Turnout in different areas of San Francisco's eleven districts also varies significantly. When the past voter turnout in the upcoming districts is calculated, turnout in the most active district is shown to be 11% to 16% higher than turnout in the least active district.

Voting Behavior and Its Impact on District Elections

San Francisco's upcoming 11 districts display clear differences from one another in voting behavior regarding issues and candidates. Many of the city's districts can be considered liberal and progressive, while other districts are considered more moderate or even conservative. Still other districts fall somewhere in the middle of this ideological spectrum. An examination of ideological voting patterns by district illustrates how local politics will be impacted under the new district election system.

Liberal/Progressive Districts

The liberal/progressive core in San Francisco consists of Districts 5, 6, 8, and 9. These districts are located in the geographic heart of the city and include large neighborhoods such as the Haight, Castro, Mission, Noe Valley and Bernal Heights. Although neighborhoods within these districts show varying support on specific issues and candidates, each of these districts can be considered solidly liberal/ progressive. These four districts are considered the core of the city's political left due to their strong support for liberal and progressive candidates over the last decade, as well as their support for local and statewide measures considered liberal/progressive: pro-tenant, pro-taxation, pro-labor, and pro-environment. In contrast, these districts exhibit weak support for conservative or moderate candidates, as well as measures considered conservative/ moderate: tough-on-crime measures and those measures restricting homeless behavior.

Conservative Districts

The moderate/conservative base in San Francisco consists of Districts 2, 4, and 7. These districts include the northernmost portion of the city (District 2) and the southwest region of the city (Districts 4 and 7). Well-recognized neighborhoods in these districts include the Marina, Pacific Heights, Sunset, West Portal, and Lakeshore/ St. Francis Wood.

These three districts have exhibited relatively high support for conservative and moderate candidates (including Republicans) in the 1990s, and have exhibited support for measures considered moderate/conservative, including crime measures. In contrast, these districts exhibit weak support for measures considered liberal/progressive.

Swing Districts

Four districts in San Francisco can be considered "swing districts" due to their varying support for liberal/progressive or moderate/conservative viewpoints depending on specific issues or candidates. These swing districts include 1, 3, 10 and 11. Well-recognized areas within these districts include northeast neighborhoods such as North Beach and Chinatown, and southern neighborhoods such as Excelsior, Visitacion Valley and Bayview Hunters Point, as well as the Richmond. Interestingly, many neighborhoods in these swing districts contain high proportions of ethnic minorities. This includes a high Asian population in Districts 1 and 3, as well as growing Asian and Latino populations in District 11, and an established African American population in District 10.

Ideological Differences within Districts

It is important to recognize that although districts can be categorized in ideological terms, significant ideological differences among voters exist within districts. Several districts contain neighborhoods that consistently vote differently from one another. Diverse neighborhood voting patterns are apparent in districts across the ideological spectrum-those that are categorized as liberal/progressive and moderate/conservative, as well as those that are considered swing districts.

For instance, within District 10-considered one of the city's swing districts-four major neighborhoods in the district exhibit widely differing ideological voting patterns. Potrero Hill is clearly the most liberal/progressive neighborhood in the district, whereas Bayview Hunters Point, while still liberal, is more moderate than Potrero Hill. In contrast, Portola/Silver Terrace and Visitacion Valley consistently vote more conservatively on issues than do Potrero Hill and Bayview Hunters Point.

Election Dynamics

in the Era of District Elections Citywide measures have often been determined on the turnout of the liberal/progressive and moderate/conservative electoral bases, combined with the support of the above-mentioned swing districts. Simply put, liberal/progressive measures are often passed when voters on the left are mobilized and the city's swing areas support these measures, while moderate/conservative measures are passed when voters on the right are mobilized and the swing districts support those issues. In 1996, Barbara Kaufman won the presidency of the Board of Supervisors by winning the most votes in the at-large supervisorial election. In 1998, Tom Ammiano won the presidency of the Board. It can be safely said that Kaufman, considered a moderate, and Ammiano, considered a liberal, share little in common ideologically. Yet each candidate emerged victorious in the at-large election by 1) mobilizing their base of support, and 2) moving outside of their base to attract support from constituencies who share less ideological similarity with them.

The Eastside Block

When liberal/progressive measures are passed, it is typically with a solid block of support on the city's east side; with the foundation in the liberal/progressive districts (5, 6, 8 and 9) and support of swing districts (1, 3, 10, 11). Displayed geographically, this support generally appears as a vertical rectangle covering the eastside of the city.

This "eastside block" is comprised of a core of liberal/ progressive neighborhoods in the center of the block, including the Haight, Castro, Mission and Bernal Heights. The block also includes swing districts to the north, such as Chinatown, North Beach, and Russian Hill, and to the south, such as Bayview Hunters Point and Excelsior.


Importantly, this eastside block also includes areas not geographically within the eastern side of the city-the Ingleside in the southwest and the Richmond in the northeast.


The Conservative C

When moderate/conservative measures are passed, it is typically with the support of a "C" shaped pattern of support throughout the city: with a foundation in the moderate/conservative districts (2, 4 and 7) and support of swing districts (1, 3, 11 and parts of 10). This geographical pattern of voting is often referred to locally as the "Conservative C," for its configuration in the form of the letter C.

This "C" shape starts in the north-of-Market region in the Chinatown/Telegraph Hill areas, then proceeds northwest, reaching its apex in the Marina/Pacific Heights. It then curves west through the Richmond and the Sunset. It continues southerly through the West Portal and Lake Merced areas, and then curves around easterly to include the Ingleside, Outer Mission and Excelsior neighborhoods. The shape is completed by a northerly turn from the Visitacion Valley neighborhood up through Bayview Hunters Point, where it ends.

The recent mayoral runoff serves as a recent example of the dynamics of the Eastside Block versus the Conservative C. For Tom Ammiano to emerge victorious in the runoff, it became clear that he would need to capture the Eastside Block-with high voter turnout in the city's progressive core and strong support in swing districts in the northern and southern portions of the city. For Willie Brown to win reelection, he would need to capture the Conservative C, with strong support in the western side of the city and in his core of support in Bayview Hunters Point, plus a strong performance in the swing districts in the city's northern and southern neighborhoods. The Brown campaign's electoral positioning added a particularly ironic twist to the election, considering his long tenure as a standard bearer of liberalism on the statewide level.

The results of the election were clear: Brown won the crucial swing areas of the city and geographic support for his candidacy resembled a classic Conservative C, while Ammiano defeated Brown in only those areas comprising the progressive core of the city.

Ethnic and Sexual Orientation Voting Patterns

In San Francisco, political strategists frequently segment the city's voters into cut-and-dry constituencies according to ethnicity, gender, party affiliation and sexual orientation. Sometimes political constituencies are cut even finer, and subgroups of voters are distinguished based on age, religion, tenant or homeowner status, and union membership.

These individual groups themselves do not elect candidates to office. However, in coalition, they can be very powerful. For example, Tom Ammiano enjoyed a strong base of support from the city's gay and lesbian voting bloc in his 1998 Board campaign. However, he also reached beyond that group to capture strong support from renters, younger voters, union members and a variety of other constituency groups. This support among several groups is the key to his ascendancy to the Board presidency.

Therefore, caution must be used when examining areas of the city that are favorable toward candidates of a particular ethnicity, sexual orientation, or other individual characteristics. One single factor or characteristic does not propel a candidate to office; rather, it is a combination of factors that gets that candidate elected. While the candidate's gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation are significant factors in attracting support, equally important are factors such as the candidate's stance on issues, his or her personality and charisma, and the campaign's organization and financial resources.

With that caveat made, certain voter characteristics-particularly ethnicity and sexual orientation-have played a pivotal role in the support a candidate receives from certain areas of the city. Considering these voting patterns, certain districts seem particularly advantageous for candidates of certain demographic characteristics.

• African American Candidates: Districts 5, 10, and 11 have been the most supportive areas in the city for an African American candidate for office, with District 10 appearing to be the most promising district for African-American candidates in the upcoming district elections.

• Asian American Candidates: Districts 1, 3, 4, 10, and 11 have been the most supportive areas in the city of Asian American candidates. Districts 1, 3, and 4 can be considered the most promising districts for Asian American candidates based on these criteria.

• Latino Candidates: Districts 9 and 11 have been most supportive of Latino candidates for office in the past. District 9 can considered be considered the more promising of the two districts for these candidates.

• Gay/Lesbian Candidates: Districts 5, 6, 8, and 9 have been the most supportive districts for gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender candidates in the past. District 8 can be considered an extremely promising district for gay and lesbian candidates.

Implications of the District System

After 20 years of at-large elections to select San Francisco's supervisors, district elections will surely change the way politics are practiced in this city. What is not clear is who will emerge as the winners and losers in this district election system.

In the mid-1970s, district elections ended the near exclusive leadership of straight white males in City Hall and ushered in a Board of Supervisors whose composition reflected the diversity of the city. Twenty years later, no such problem exists in city government. As we enter into district elections, only one of the Board's current members is a straight white male.

One group that has arguably been underrepresented in City Hall, ideological conservatives, may see their fortunes rise. District 7, in particular, has the potential to elect a Republican supervisor, a scenario considered nearly unthinkable under the at-large system. Minor parties such as the Greens, as well as Independents, may also benefit from district elections. District 9 in particular is comprised of a relatively high number of Green and Independent voters. Moreover, Independent candidates have the potential to run increasingly viable campaigns as the historic power of citywide groups such as the local Democratic Party weaken in the presence of very localized campaigns.

One possible result of the district election system is that it will usher in an era of renewed grassroots participation in supervisorial campaigns. Already, a collection of fresh faces to the local political scene have lined up to run in the city's various districts, buoyed by the promise of low-cost campaigns (with expenditure limits) dominated by old-fashioned "face-to-face" politicking. Some of these candidates report being inspired by Tom Ammiano's recent low-cost bid for mayor. On the other hand, this style of campaigning may run into a brick wall of well-funded "independent expenditure" campaigns that proved so effective in the recent mayoral election.

A wide range of outcomes on local governance has been predicted in the era of district elections. Supporters of district-based representation suggest that it will increase accountability of supervisors to their constituents and create a local government that is more accessible to the average San Franciscan. In contrast, critics of the district-based system suggest that it will shift focus from the diverse and complex issues facing San Francisco to more insulated and parochial neighborhood concerns. Whether district elections will result in an era of open, more responsive government or one of isolated fiefdoms is fodder for endless debate. What will surely evolve is a new and unprecedented political geography in San Francisco.

San Francisco's experiment in local democracy continues-no one can say with great confidence what will occur in the coming district elections. One thing is for sure: it will be an exhilarating ride for San Francisco's body politic. Hold on to your hats-November 2000 here we come!

Wade Crowfoot, SPUR member and former intern, is a project director at David Binder Research.