Sup. David Campos wants to make it easier to vote
Sup. David Campos wants to make it easier to vote

By Tim Redmond

DECEMBER 22, 2014 – Supervisor David Campos has an idea that could revolutionize electoral politics in San Francisco – and it’s so simple that I’m amazed none of us thought of it before.

Campos told me last week he wants to explore legislation to direct the Department of Elections to mail an absentee ballot to every registered voter in the city, every election.

That would in essence turn San Francisco elections into what they are already becoming – vote by mail elections – and could significantly increase turnout.

The city would still keep polling stations open on Election Day; not everyone wants to vote early, and not everyone will use that ballot.

But tens of thousands of people who have never signed up for permanent vote-by-mail status, and who don’t make it to the polls most election days, would have a reminder that it’s time to vote and an easy way to do it.

Vote by mail has been a huge success in Oregon, where all elections are conducted that way and voter turnout is the highest in the nation.

Oregon passed a statewide initiative in 1998 to shift to mail-in ballots. It would be a huge move to get the state of California to take that step, but what Campos is talking about requires (I think) no state action at all.

The city already mails out tens of thousands of ballots to people who sign up in advance to get one. Why not send one to everyone?

Campos is interested in ways that progressives can start to deal with a pretty serious change in local politics. Elections aren’t won and lost on Election Day any more. Campos beat Sup. David Chiu with 57 percent of the vote on this past Election Day – and Chiu won the state Assembly race.

That’s because so many people now cast absentee ballots, voting weeks before the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. Campaigns that focus on traditional Get Out the Vote Strategies don’t succeed any more.

I don’t know if there are any laws that would prohibit the city from sending out unsolicited ballots, but if there are, that would seem to be something we could get around. Who’s (publicly) against increasing voter turnout?

The fears of fraud and undue influence that always come up at times like this have turned out not be much of a problem in Oregon. Voter fraud really isn’t a problem much of anywhere in the United States.

This one could be fascinating. Watch for it in the new year.

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Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.
  • Larry Bush

    I would recommend that any candidate receiving public funds be required to send one piece of mail to every registered voter. That seems a small way of insuring that public funds aren’t used exclusively to do voter outreach to only those voters who lean toward a specific candidate.
    I also think something has to be built into an early voting scenario to recognize that late in the election is when differences sharpen between candidates and various issues. Consider the fact that the Chiu backers attacking Campos became an issue well into the election season, and those who voted at the beginning of the time when one could cast a vote. It’s when tougher questions (if ever) get asked, and when candidates try to slip past them and get called on it.

    • Larry, wait until about a month before the election when the mud really starts flying before mailing them out.

  • Dean P.

    Very good idea. Let’s also require landlords to provide voter registration information to tenants upon the commencement of a tenancy.

    • SFvoter

      While we’re at it, let’s have landlords wipe their tenants’ ass for them too.

      • Shorter bought-and-paid-for wingnut: WAAAAAAHHHHHH!!!

    • SFrentier

      Why should LL’s be forced by the city to do even more things for tenants, especially when it’s against their interest? What are you smoking??

      • Russo

        So democracy goes against the landlords’ interests. Fascinating.

        • SFrentier

          Noooo. But why the hell should I be obligated to provide voter registration? How about their dentist? Their barista? Or their dog groomer? They can also provide voter reg info.

          • nancys

            i guess ayn rand is one of your all time favorites – because nobody is suggesting landlords do any of the things you suggest – just on the defensive quick, real quick –

          • Sam

            It is for a tenant to register himself or herself to vote, or not if he or she chooses not to.

            I do not believe that many tenants would want their landlords doing that for them. I’m fairly sure it’s not legal or possible either

          • SFrentier

            Nanc, if you pull your head out of your ass for just one minute and read what dean wrote above, you’d see that he’s suggesting landlords be required to provide voter reg materials to tenants.

  • Loretta Chardin

    Have to comment on the photo of Campos with the drag queens – I love SF!

    • 4th Gen SFer

      You must be new here then. That’s pretty much a *yawn* kind of pic here.

  • jimmy9911

    “Campos is interested in ways that progressives can start to deal with a pretty serious change in local politics.”

    You mean the change in attitudes of the voters because the (voters) didn’t agree with the progressive agenda? Sounds like sour grapes.

    • 4th Gen SFer

      He’s upset because he lost to Chiu who is still a progressive but Campos painted him as to the right of Atila The Hun.

    • Charlie

      Yep, the real reason is of course, that Campos lost because most, especially younger, Radicals and Progs are lazy and only vote in large numbers in [some] Presidential Elections.

      • Ross

        Yes, it’s best to view this idea is as just the latest salvo in the near-endless progressive search for the holy grail of electoral success. They seek a special form of alchemy whereby a minority of voters can somehow magically win an election by rigging the system this way and that.

        The most obvious example of that was the RCV/STV/IRV methods which progressives were convinced would win them more races, although it didn’t end up that way. Of course they dressed it up as being fairer or cheaper, but none of that would matter if it didn’t give them a better shot.

        And now the cry is that this new idea will increase turnout. A noble aim, perhaps, but if a higher turnout meant it was less likely that someone like Campos could win, he would not go anywhere near it.

        It’s going to take a very very special form of voting system to enable the progressive one third of the voters to over-ride the moderate two thirds. And an even more special form of voting for Campos to ever have another elected office.

        • Larry Bush

          Fortunately, the progressives have all the help they need from the bonehead proposals that are backed by the Chamber of Commerce and their allies in and out of City Hall. How did that 8 Washington deal turn out for you? Or Prop B on the waterfront? Or the city’s policies on refugees? Or the creation of the police oversight board? Or the passage of new disclosures by permit consultants? Or anything else you care to name? Chiu was accurately characterized by Willie Brown as more transactional than Campos, which suits Willie fine but worries progressives. If your bandwidth consists of the distance between Chiu and Campos, you’ve already lost.

          • Ross

            Of course election results are variable, and progressives don’t always lose even though they are naturally a minority.

            But clearly they are not winning enough elections because they are constantly complaining about the state of the city. They haven’t won the mayoral race in a generation, for instance, and the board of supervisors has been becoming more moderate since the turn of the century.

            Enough races end up being close, like Chiu/Campos, that I don’t blame Campos for looking at technical and administrative nuances that might give him a further edge. I just wish he’d be honest about it and admit it’s because he thinks it will give him a better shot at winning rather than warbling about how higher turnout is more democratic.

            The left don’t want things to be more democratic if they think that will work against them. Just look at the way they have tried to get public power in through the back door despite the voters always rejecting it when given the chance.

          • Larry Bush

            I think your thesis fails because it was progressives who worked for an election system that was recognized as creating stronger options for moderates. That was a key issue in district elections on the basis that everyone has a right to be at the table when decisions affecting them are made. Under citywide elections no Republican or even a decline to state would be elected.
            Also ranked choice voting had the known impact of diminishing political differences and favoring a candidate able to coalesce with others. Including moderate voters. Otherwise I think a reasonable assumption is that Ed Lee would not have been elected.
            Personally I favor using some public funding for every candidate to reach every voter rather than cherry picking most likely favorable voters. That could drive up the percent of voters participating. I happen to believe the depressed voter participation is a result of many voters feeling disenfranchised under new campaign finance rules that weight money over people. It will only be worse in the next election where even potential candidates don’t show up knowing they would run a gauntlet of outside money. It was the major factor in Chiu’s win over Campos.

          • Ross

            Larry, are you suggesting that under the old runoff system, Avalos would have beaten Lee? Given that Lee was always 50% ahead of Avalos in all rounds of counting, there is no reason to make the assumption that Lee would not have won in any alternative voting system. A progressive hasn’t won a mayoral runoff in my living memory.

            A better example of RCV changing a result is the ill-fated Jean Quan in Oakland. Alternate systems can only make a difference in a close race like that, and the result didn’t do Oaklanders much good.

            District elections, since you mentioned them, are another good example of progressives supporting a system that they thought would favor them. And indeed it is hard to imagine that polarizing candidates like Avalos and Campos would win a city-wide election, let alone Chris Daly. And they introduce another undemocratic form i.e. a supervisor being elected with maybe just 5,000 votes.

            Finally, nobody has ever told me that they didn’t vote because of campaign financing rules.

          • Dave

            “Otherwise I think a reasonable assumption is that Ed Lee would not have been elected.”

            I love it when people make ‘reasonable assumptions’ like that. Lee was way ahead at every stage of the election. Way ahead.

            Are you saying that it is also a ‘reasonable assumption’ that Willie Brown and Gavin Newsom would not have been elected without RCV? Or that Chiu could not have beaten Campos without RCV?

          • Larry Bush

            Dave, I’m at a loss to understand your response. There is no RCV in state elections, so it was not a factor in Chiu-Campos. Perhaps you are confusing the fact that there were several days when ballots were still being counted. There also was no RCV for Willie Brown’s two elections or for Gavin Newsom’s two elections. So I can’t grasp how you think this is relevant.
            Also, the record does not support your statement that Lee was far ahead of Avalos as the votes were apportioned under RCV. He started with a minimal 35% of the vote and hovered around that number through 12 sorts as candidates with fewer votes dropped off. It was not until the 12th count that he passed the 50% mark — as the last choice of the voters for dead-end candidates. Could Lee have won in a head-to-head match? Would it have been a Lee-Herrera match-up? We don’t know. But we are a long way from having data to support your claims.

          • Alex

            Larry, nobody was ever close to Lee at any point in those 12 rounds. Nor was there the kind of tactical “anyone but Lee” coalition that might have caused another candidate to overtake Lee.

            There are some elections where the voting methodology can make a difference, as when Quan won in Oakland. But the race has to be reasonably close for that to matter. You need a better example.

            RCV played no role in Chiu/Campos, as you note, but turnout might just have done. There is little doubt in my mind that Campos wishes his idea had been in place a few weeks back although, again, I think Chiu was always going to win that one.

          • Dave

            Larry, I was being facetious. sorry. You said that it was a reasonable assumption that Lee would not have won without RCV and one of my arguments against was that similar candidates (Willie Brown, Newsom, Chiu) won without RCV.

            Lee started out with 30.75% in the first round against 15 other candidates. Avalos had about 19% and Hererra 11%. Not sure why you feel that 31% indicates weakness and 19% shows real strength.

            And people who understand RCV (if there are any) know that the number of rounds is largely a function of the number of candidates. The first round was Paul Currier’s 248 votes being redistributed. Round 2 was Emil Lawrence’s 397 votes. It’s not Ed Lee’s fault that these fringe candidates ran but it did take multiple rounds to process their minuscule vote totals.

            Don’t get me wrong, RCV is a simplistic disgrace. But it amazes me that Progressives push for it and then claim that it distorts true voter sentiment when it doesn’t give them the results they wanted.

  • Y

    Small correction: the article you quote is a countdown from the sixth-highest turnout (Oregon, 60.13%) to the highest (Minnesota, 67.6%). FOr several other o the top six, high turnout is ascribed to same-day registration.

    Can a city in California have same-day registration, or is that decided only by the state? I’d be happy to have both mail-in voting and same-day registration.

    I’m not sure what sort of effect it would have on the political balance overall; I think it’s a bit more complicated than “poor people don’t vote but would vote left”. All the same, high turnout is the right thing to aspire to.

  • Michael J.

    Interesting idea. Too many tech workers are disconnected from the local political process and don’t vote.

    • 4th Gen SFer

      True, what if they did? We’d see BIG changes, and imho, they would be good ones for the city. The leftward tilt would sort of come to an end. 🙂

      • Greg

        I’d be willing to take that tradeoff. In any case, it would increase turnout, so I’m for it.

        The interesting question is who will line up against this? Something tells me that the “moderates” will find every excuse to oppose this. Why? As Michael implies, this is politically neutral. Should be a no-brainer. And yet…

        • Sam

          There is no reason to believe that the folks who don’t vote are any different from the folks who do vote.

          If anything, those who are less interested in politics and therefore less likely to vote are probably fairly moderate.

          But evidently Campos thinks this will help candidates like him or he would never advocate it. On the other hand, he’s looking for excuses for losing and “low turnout” might be a more palatable excuse for him then the fact that more voters preferred the other guy.

          Of course, when 8-Wash lost on very low turnout, he never complained.

        • t

          Motor voter was supposed to increase voter turn out and be a boon for democrats. Instead it just made it easier for retired folks to vote republican by mail.

          Likely the same here.

  • Isn’t this what they do in Oregon?

  • Didn’t take long for the paid wingnut whining to start…

  • Long-time pollworker

    One potential downside to this idea is that it would make it harder to vote in person. The reason is that once you receive a ballot by mail, if you want to vote in person, you have to remember to “surrender” (i.e. turn in) your mail ballot when you go to vote in person. Otherwise, you have to vote provisionally.

    The provisional voting requirement is there to prevent someone else from casting a ballot for you, which would invalidate your mail ballot if you tried to mail it in.

    • xxx

      Or they could just drop the mail in ballot into the box.

      • Long-time pollworker

        There are advantages to voting in person that you don’t get by mailing your ballot. Your vote is much more likely to be counted (see my comment below re: 2% of vote-by-mail ballots getting rejected). The in-person precinct scanner can check your ballot for overvotes, etc. And polling places have accessible voting machines for people with disabilities.

  • GarySFBCN

    It is a great idea, and given the successes in Oregon, there’s no reason to NOT do this.

    As for the risk of fraud, it probably has the same level of risk. It lessens the risk of ballots disappearing in transit from the polling places to city hall, but may introduce other risks.

    It is certainly worth a try.

    • Albert

      Ballots are moved from the polling places to city hall by armed sheriffs. The risk of them “disappearing” is therefore trivial, unless you think that Ross is conducting voter fraud.

      Vote-by-mail, provisional ballots and same-day registration all potentially can side-step measures to prevent voter fraud.

      Of course, we could have compulsory voting, like in Australia.

      • Hmmm, compulsory voting?

        I’m usually knee-jerk against anything “mandatory,” but this might be an exception. It could be a made into a requirement for citizenship. You want to enjoy the benefits this country provides? Then vote, damnit! Failure to do so would result in being put in the public stocks for a couple of days…..

      • As for voter fraud, I have worked the last two elections as a poll inspector, and I can tell you that the problem is not that people are trying to vote twice, or under an assumed name. The problem is the voting process is so difficult most people simply don’t bother.

        • xxx

          It really is back breaking isn’t it.

    • Long-time pollworker

      One problem with vote-by-mail ballots is that your ballot isn’t guaranteed to be counted. For example, if your signature on the envelope doesn’t match what you have on a file, the ballot will be rejected. Around 2% of vote-by-mail ballots in San Francisco weren’t counted in the June and November 2014 elections because they were rejected. There is no such risk voting in person.

      Also, I have never heard of ballots disappearing in transit from the polling place to city hall. Each polling place fills out paper work saying how many ballots are expected, so such an event could be detected it it happened.

      • Larry Bush

        Well, it did happen that ballot boxes were found floating in the Bay in the 1996 election where Willie Brown put a double down on getting the 49er stadium deal passed. There were numerous illegalities in that election, including selected early voting in precincts known to favor Brown’s position and no early voting in other parts of town — despite a formal secretary of state notice that this was illegal.
        in the 2014 November election, early voting at City Hall (the only place where it was possible) became a voter suppression move after city officials approved closing all the streets around City Hall, including parking, so that the disabled could not enter to vote. The Registrar of Voters and the City Attorney were not informed in advance of these closures. A formal complaint is now pending with the US Justice Dept.

  • If polls are kept open on Election Day, wouldn’t every vote need to be verified for duplicate voting, mail and in-person? Oregon does not have Election Day polls I do not believe.

    • Ross

      Yeah, that would be the way to do it, and would save the city all the expense of manning polling places on election day.

      In fact, technology should enable voting via the internet or cell phone, which would dramatically reduce the cost of holding elections, and could automatically cross-check to reject duplicates.

      Vote-by-mail, if we are going to enable it for everyone, should be with the purpose of making the entire process cheaper and more efficient. But again, the fraud problem needs to be solved if you do not vote in person.

      For example, I have never been asked to provide proof that I am a US citizen and therefore entitled to a vote at all. I am not aware that the city checks, nor how they could. The DMV includes voter information on their forms, but of course you do not need to be a citizen to get a driver license or register a vehicle. How do we know that non-citizens aren’t voting?

      • SFrentier

        Donde es el Sam?

        • Hulu Bing

          Rumor has it that Sam has taken a job to do damage control for North Korea and Kim Jong Un and is busy trolling on all the blogs condemning North Korea!

          • 4th Gen SFer

            You forget that Sam is not leftwing but rightwing. It is not the right that is leading the crazy countries, it is the left. In Cuba, in Russia (Putin is an old communist) and in NK. They are all yours baby, take them.

      • Dave

        I think voting should be done entirely via cell phone.

        That way we don’t have to bother ourselves with the concerns of neanderthals who still use feature phones. In fact, voting should be done via iOS8 and Andoid Lollipop only. We don’t need those dinosaurs voting if they can’t keep up with the latest technology.

      • My wife is not a citizen, but she has received a couple of jury duty summons in the 6 years she’s been in the country (only citizens are eligible for jury duty, not permanent residents). This does not give me a lot of confidence in the quality of the DMV database.

        As for ID checks, I know they are used by Republican state legislatures for purpose of minority vote suppression, but most countries require a photo ID to vote, the U.S. is the outlier.

        As for electronic voting, any computer scientist will tell you it is untrustworthy as long as secret ballots are required, and in any case a voting procedure should be one a layman can vet.

        • Sam

          The purpose of voter ID laws is to prevent fraud, abuse, double-voting and misrepresentation. It does not “suppress” the ability of anyone to vote except those who are not entitled to vote.

          That said, a DL is a lousy form of ID for the purpose of entitlement to vote for the stated reason – you don’t have to be a citizen to get a DL.

          Election materials are already sent out to all voters. Why not include a “voter ID card” with that, which must be sent or presented when voting?

          But even that is useless if cities and counties are not checking the eligibility of those registered to vote, and I have near zero confidence that SF can do that. I’d be willing to guess that you can successfully register to vote even if you don’t have a green card.

          • Russo

            “The purpose of voter ID laws is to prevent fraud, abuse, double-voting and misrepresentation.”

            Wrong as usual, Sam/John.

            Funny how those offenses, rare as they are, never make a dent in election results. But voter disenfranchisement–the real reason for a Jim Crow holdover like the voter ID law–historically swings elections to the entrenched elites.

          • Sam

            Russo, how would you know that voter fraud is rare? If it is successful, then you’d never know about it at all.

            What I think you mean is that fraudulent votes are rarely discovered, but of course that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. Only that it’s tough to detect.

            But I am glad to hear you think it is rare, because progressives often use exactly that excuse when they lose, e.g. when Lee won and “irregularities” were claimed in ChinaTown. Or on various occasions when Willie Brown was mayor. Or Gore versus Bush. And so on.

            I suspect anyone with a US address could probably vote, and more than once, regardless of entitlement.

          • Larry Bush

            Sam: do you seriously think Gascon will ever act on corruption affecting the “city family”? The guy was hand picked by Pak and Brown.

  • folderpete

    Mandatory, compulsory, and maximized voting is the fallacy of quantity over quality. Just because someone cast a ballot doesn’t mean they knew what they were doing!

    For the first time this year, I declined to automatically fill in someone’s name on a race I knew nothing about (most judges and the school board). What is the benefit, anyway, to having a know-nothing pull the level for the X Party?

    Now I’m NOT saying that certain R efforts to suppress the vote are a good idea. But I also don’t think ignorance is a positive contribution to Democracy. Sure, get the word out to every voter – but you can’t make them read or listen to it.

  • Let’s see if this Campos idea becomes reality.

    He’s promised to rename SFO for Harvey Milk, open a homeless shelter in his district for LGBT people, get the Tamale Lady a bricks-and-mortar shop in the Mission, none of what has happened yet. He’s not good on floating ideas and then doing the nitty-griity work.

    Might Campos one day do his research first, get a few ducks all lined up and then begin work on a project he will see to the end? This story is more about democratic engagement than learning if Campos has done any homework yet.

    Would be great if Team Campos, which includes three paid City Hall staffers, developed the skills and commitment to issue a monthly newsletter on his Supe site. His last newsletter to constituents was in 2013: http://www.sfbos.org/index.aspx?page=2122

    • SFrentier

      Campos is a balljacker. In the meantime crime is rampant in the mission and he just sits on his ass.