It’s a rare election in San Francisco that doesn’t feature some form of measure on the ballot, and some of the policy questions they pose might have you asking how they wound up going to voters in the first place.
In recent years, San Francisco ballot measures have asked voters to weigh in on a wide range of issues, including whether cops should carry Tasers and renaming a sewage plant after President George W. Bush.
This year—with four elections scheduled—has been especially busy.
So far, San Francisco has voted on 11 ballot questions, including four recalls. Our final election of the year, on Nov. 8, will probably also feature a full slate of measures. To date, the Board of Supervisors is mulling 10 more charter amendments for the fall election. Meanwhile, more measures—including a plan to undo car closures in Golden Gate Park and the Great Highway—are in the works.
So, how do these questions come before the electorate?
Ballot measures can land on the ballot in multiple ways, from signature-gathering to the legislative process. Here’s a breakdown of the different kinds of ballot measures and how exactly they happen.
At the municipal level, basic policy questions can be charter amendments or ordinances.
- Amendments to the charter, which is like the city’s constitution, can be put on the ballot by a majority vote of the supervisors. The board is currently looking at 10 charter amendments for the November ballot, nine of which were introduced on May 24.
- The mayor can also introduce charter amendments, which must be approved by the board before being submitted to the city’s Department of Elections. Mind you, that approval doesn’t always happen. Supervisors can also amend these proposals.
- They can also be placed on the ballot “by initiative”—in other words, by any group that can get verified signatures on a petition equal to 10% of the city’s registered voters (which as of now is around 50,000).
- At the end of last year, supervisors introduced six charter amendments for the June ballot. Only two made it, and one of them—which originally aimed to restrict the ability of the mayor to appoint replacements for vacated offices—was heavily pared down to a “recall reform” measure that ended up losing anyway.
- Ordinances can be placed on the ballot with the signature of four supervisors. This was the case with the recently passed Prop. D, which established an independent Office of Victim and Witness Rights.
- The mayor can also introduce initiative ordinances. She can do so directly or with the approval of the supervisors. Supervisors cannot amend ordinances placed directly on the ballot, whereas in the latter case they can.
- A person or group can also place an initiative ordinance on the ballot by obtaining a number of verified signatures equal to 5% of the votes cast in the most recent mayoral election (which is currently around 10,000).
- Keep in mind that whatever is introduced may not make it to the ballot. An initiative by petition may not get enough signatures in time for a given election. Petition supporters can then plan for a following election. Measures going through the board can be blocked or amended in committee.
- Just because something passes as a ballot measure, it doesn’t mean the question is settled. Voters just approved an ordinance regarding “behested payments” by supervisors, but it looks like that issue might go on the ballot again unless an accord is reached at City Hall.
Bond and Tax Measures
Another type of measure authorizes public financing of selected projects through the sale of bonds or certain new taxes, which require a public vote by law.
- General obligation bonds fund projects such as infrastructure which normally do not directly generate revenue. They are backed by the city’s property taxation authority. They require a supermajority of two-thirds of votes in order to be approved.
- Revenue bonds are sold against income generated by the agency issuing the bonds, and are most associated with the city's “enterprise departments.” They only require a simple majority.
- Voters just narrowly “rejected”—meaning it only gathered 65% of the vote—a general obligation bond measure to keep the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency afloat until they could rebuild their revenue sources, which had been impacted by Covid.
- The question of the correct vote threshold for new taxes has been litigated in recent years. In 2018, 61% of voters passed Prop. C, a business tax to fund homeless services which was placed on the ballot by initiative. But the tax, and the revenue it generated, was tied up in court for years.
- To recall an elected official or some commissioners in San Francisco, you need to assemble a group of 20 official proponents who will stand behind a 200-word statement on why a given official should be removed. But that’s the easy part.
- Then, you need to circulate a petition to gather valid signatures.
- In the case of recalling a citywide official such as the mayor or the district attorney, the number of verified signatures needs to be equal to 10% of the city’s registered voters.
- In the case of a district representative, such as a supervisor, the number of signatures needs to equal 15 to 20% of registered voters in that district, depending on the office.
And good luck!