Elections and Democracy – San Francisco Style

Corey Cook headshot

Corey Cook 
Corey Cook, Professor of Politics is currently on leave but is still a critical observer of local, state and national politics. Professsor Cook regularly contributes to the McCarthy Center blog while he establishes the School of Public Service at Boise State University.

As my friend Jon Bernstein pointed out in a Bloomberg View piece last year, the timing of our elections can have a profound consequence for policy and governance. For instance, the specific timing of the economic crash in 2008 had important implications for President Obama’s agenda. Had the recession started sooner, unemployment would have likely bottomed out before the president assumed office (rather than in October of his first year). In that scenario, the Tea Party summer might have never occurred and John Boehner is still Speaker, if not Nancy Pelosi. Alternatively, had the recession started just a few months later (unemployment began rising in May of 2008 before spiking between the election and inauguration) most certainly the 2008 election would have been closer and the Democrats would likely have gained far fewer seats in the Congress. In other words, a later recession, and there is probably no Affordable Care Act or second Obama administration, an earlier recession, and there is likely no Tea Party revolt. In either case, Obama still wins the 2008 election, but the meaning of that election – the size of the mandate, the context in which the new executive takes office and governs – is quite different.

So what does this have to do with San Francisco?

Next week, somewhere between one third and two-fifths of San Francisco registered voters will participate in a municipal election. It’s a sleepy election. Of the five citywide races, three involve incumbents running unopposed, the mayor will win re-election easily against underfunded challengers, and one race, the election for county sheriff, is considered competitive, though it likely won’t be close. Instead, most of the attention on election night will be focused on a single supervisorial district (which will reportedly exceed $1 million in campaign spending) and a handful of hotly contested ballot measures. You might suspect that San Franciscans overwhelmingly approve of the job that Ed Lee is doing as mayor and endorse his policies, and surely his supporters will make that claim next week, but that would ignore the context of the election.

Make no mistake, Ed Lee will win handily and his supporters will declare it a clear affirmation of his policies. But the reality is that San Francisco voters remain conflicted. While the mayor is credited for presiding over a sustained economic boom (unemployment fell from over 9% to a shade over 3% during his five years in office), San Franciscans remain deeply troubled by the skyrocketing cost of living, the displacement of lower and middle income residents, and a general loss of community. They are dissatisfied with the state of transit and infrastructure and the failure of the city to adequately address homelessness.

Just over ten months ago, when leading contenders to challenge the mayor contemplated taking the plunge, the mayor’s solid poll numbers and extensive (some might say excessive) campaign war chest dissuaded entry into the race. He was coming off a successful fall election and about six months of good press. But since that time, it’s been anything but smooth sailing. One of the unforeseen consequences of the shift from a majority runoff to a ranked choice election is that a late insurgency (like that waged by Tom Ammiano against Mayor Willie Brown in 1999) are all but precluded. It’s not enough for someone to hold the mayor under 50% and take a shot in a runoff. Instead, an insurgent candidate would have to win outright in November, a tall task. But were the election six months from now, I wonder if the mayor would face a far stiffer challenge. And, as is always the case, his detractors are likely to claim some victories of their own in down-ballot contests and on some of the ballot measures.

“Elections Matter”

To quote president Obama, “elections matter”. But our interpretations of election results are typically vast overreaches that depend too much on the randomness of the timing of an election. And if history is any guide, the battle over which faction “won” is likely to be as hotly contested after the results are announced as before. As Bernstein writes, “if we see (election outcomes) as registering the preferences of voters on the issues and regard them as definitive, then we weaken democracy.” While those candidates who emerge victorious on election day have earned the legal mandate to govern, let’s not presume that voters have endorsed the victors’ positions on every issue and embrace the simplistic notion promulgated every four years that we have effectively “handed over the keys of the car.” Democracy demands much more than that.

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