Patrick Wolff is the executive director of Families for San Francisco and a chess grandmaster. He and his wife have raised both their children in San Francisco.
Last year, more than 10% of registered San Francisco voters signed petitions to place two recall measures on the ballot: the February recall of three school board members, which passed overwhelmingly, and the proposed recall of District Attorney Chesa Boudin, which will be decided in June. On the same day the Board of Education recall vote passed, seven members of the Board of Supervisors put a third recall decision on the upcoming June ballot: Proposition C, a measure that would amend the recall process itself.
Prop. C makes two changes.The first change radically shrinks the time during an official’s tenure when voters could initiate a recall. The details are complex because the measure reduces both the window when voters can gather signatures and the window before the next scheduled election when the recall could occur; in practice, it means voters could realistically initiate a recall only during six months out of a 48-month term.
The second change pertains to the appointed replacement if a recall is successful. Under current law, an appointed official can run for office at the next election like anyone else. Prop. C specifically prohibits whoever is appointed to fill the vacant office from running for that office in the next election. If Prop. C passes, it would apply to the current election; this means the person appointed to fill the DA role would not be allowed to run for the DA office in the next election.
Backers of Prop. C argue these changes serve the public interest by sparing San Francisco the time and expense of holding recall elections they claim are unnecessary, and by ensuring the appointment after a recall would not have an advantage over other candidates who want the same office.
Families for San Francisco, where I serve as executive director, is a volunteer-driven local research and advocacy group that wrote a report about recall elections in San Francisco. Our research convinced us to publish a paid ballot argument against Proposition C. (However, we do not control a PAC, so we have not made a contribution to this contest or to any other local elections. Nor has Families for San Francisco taken a position on the district attorney recall.) We did this work to shine a light on what we see as a deeply undemocratic proposal that is backed by faulty arguments.
One misleading claim is that recall elections exploit low turnout to succeed. In fact, a comprehensive 2019 analysis compared the results of recall elections—contrasting those held on a special election day (when turnout is lower) with those held on a general election day. Recalls on general election days had a slightly higher rate of succeeding than those on a special election day. Turnout has nothing to do with the success of a recall.
Another fallacious justification for Prop. C is that the city is drowning in recall elections. In fact, there have only been six recall elections on the ballot since the adoption of the recall in 1907. (This includes the upcoming DA recall, and counts the recall vote on each of the three Board of Education commissioners as one election.) Before 2022, the last recall was in 1983; the last one before that was in 1946.
It is true that voters this year are turning to the recall more than usual, but that’s because voters are more upset than usual. Certainly, the wide margins by which the Board of Education recalls passed demonstrates strong dissatisfaction with the Board of Education. Polling suggests many people are unhappy with DA Chesa Boudin as well.
Prop. C is not true reform; it is simply an attempt by current elected officials to take power away from the people.
By gutting the recall process, Prop. C only serves the immediate political interests of the supervisors who placed it on the ballot. By limiting recalls they seek to delegitimize them, providing political cover for those supervisors who supported the unpopular Board of Education members the voters just recalled. And if Boudin is next to get recalled in June, this measure would prevent Mayor Breed from appointing a DA who could run in November. Even if that appointee proves to be successful and popular, they’d still be ineligible—and even though appointees who hold an office for reasons other than a recall do not face a similar prohibition. This is hardly good government.
There is a deep dissatisfaction with the status quo in San Francisco today. Almost half of San Francisco residents plan to leave the city eventually, with homelessness, the high cost of living and rising crime cited as the top three reasons. At the same time, trust in City Hall is at rock bottom, with two thirds of voters saying they disapprove of the job being done by the Board of Supervisors.
Voters are turning to the recall for the first time in decades because they are desperate for results. The seven supervisors who sponsored Prop. C profoundly misunderstand how they should be spending their time. Instead of protecting themselves from the will of the voters, they should focus their energies on addressing our city’s problems and serving the general interest.