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Explainer: Breaking down San Francisco’s bizarre Feb. 15 special election

San Francisco voters face up to four separate elections this year. The first one on Feb. 15 is the result of three separate political moves: 

        Voters will decide whether to approve the recall of the three school board members, to elect the appointed replacement assessor-recorder to that office, and to choose a new assemblymember for the 17th District, which has just been given new borders. It’s a short but complicated ballot, so let’s break it down. 


        The issues and politics behind the SF Board of Education recalls have been extensively reported by The Standard.

        How will the recall process actually work?

        The recall votes are handled as if they were ballot measures. They each have their own letter:

        A – Recall Allison Collins

        B – Recall Gabriela Lopez

        C – Recall Faauuga Moliga

        So not all of the recalls could pass or fail together? 

        No. There could be a mixed result, which may result in a political boost for any survivors. Commissioner Faauuga Moliga has distanced himself from the other two members facing recall.

        How many votes are needed for each recall to pass? What happens with the resulting vacancies?

        A simple majority (50% plus 1 vote) is required for recall. Any vacancies due to recall are filled by mayoral appointment. Those appointments will serve until the next regularly scheduled election after the appointment has served in office 120 days. The appointed person is able to run as a candidate in that election to be elected in their own right. 


        What exactly does the Assessor-Recorder do? 

        The Office of Assessor-Recorder deals with two big portfolios in city and county government: maintenance of the property tax base and  public records. You go to this office to pay your property tax bill, and they’re in charge of reassessing your property tax liability as necessary. The assessor-recorder is also in charge of maintaining public records, such as marriage licenses. The office also engages in other activities related to these areas for the public benefit, such as financial health education and tax equity advocacy in Sacramento. 

        Joaquin Torres, formerly head of the Office of Economic and Workforce Development, was sworn in as assessor-recorder by Mayor Breed last February, as the office was vacated by incumbent Carmen Chu to accept the mayor’s appointment as city administrator. 

        Why are we voting for this position now instead of in June or November? 

        Actually, the regular election for this position is in November, and we will be voting for it (again) at that time. But it’s also up for a vote in February because of local laws governing replacement appointments. 

        Is anyone running against Joaquin Torres?

        It’s possible but highly unlikely. Most of the relevant deadlines to enter the race have passed, although it’s still possible to enter as a write-in candidate assuming a person submits all the proper paperwork by Feb. 1. Additionally, anyone running for the job must be a qualified appraiser certified by the state. 

        Is Torres bothering to campaign at all? 

        A check with the Ethics Commission’s campaign finance dashboards shows Torres has garnered around $120,000 in contributions. Torres’ campaign manager, Maggie Muir, told The Standard that he “will be reaching out to voters to introduce himself and talk about the impact of his office on everyday people.”


        The AD17 seat is currently vacant as the incumbent, David Chiu, accepted Mayor Breed’s appointment as city attorney last November. It’s likely that residents on the east side of town will be voting for this race up to four times this year, due to a double whammy of state election laws and local circumstances.  

        San Francisco had no local election last year, so Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a special election for the vacancy on April 19, with the primary for that election scheduled for Feb. 15. Meanwhile, the regular election cycle for this seat is also this year, in June and November. 

        The Standard has more on the politics behind this race here

        So who’s running in this race? 

        Candidates for the seat include District 6 Supervisor Matt Haney and former District 9 Supervisor and former District 9 Supervisor David Campos, currently on leave from his job as chief of staff for District Attorney Chesa Boudin. These two are the acknowledged frontrunners, and they’re running close enough that the Alice B. Toklas LGBTQ Democratic Club—one of the city’s major political entities—has chosen not to endorse anyone in the race.

        Other candidates include City College Trustee Thea Selby and former Obama administration policy analyst and tech entrepreneur Bilal Mahmood. According to an internal poll by the Campos campaign, Mahmood rated surprisingly high at 14%. 

        You can hear more from the candidates at Election Season Kickoff: The Race for SF’s Assembly District 17

        Does everyone get to vote in this race?

        Only voters in the 17th Assembly District, broadly the eastern side of San Francisco, will vote in this race. On top of this, the district lines were recently redrawn in a fairly controversial process, so you will want to check if you’re still in the district.

        Will we really have to vote four times? 

        It depends. The two election cycles differ in nature. The earlier special election cycle is a standard primary and runoff, where it might be possible to avoid the April runoff should a candidate in February garner a majority of votes rather than a plurality. Given that there are four candidates with at least three apparently polling in the double digits, that’s highly unlikely. 

        Meanwhile, the regular election cycle in June and November is California’s infamous “Jungle Primary” process, where the top two winners go to a November general election regardless of what percentage of the vote they get. 

        Moreover, the June/November cycle will likely feature a mostly different cast of candidates, with only the winner of the February/April cycle moving on to the next round. If you think this is starting to resemble Mortal Kombat, you’re not alone. 

        This story has been updated to note that David Campos is currently on leave from his position as chief of staff for District Attorney Chesa Boudin.