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Politics & Policy

Tuesday’s election could have the lowest voter turnout in years. Why?

A person is seated at a row of voting booths in a well-lit room, filling out a ballot.
Data indicates that San Francisco’s turnout this primary season may be historically low on Monday. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

Tuesday's primary election was being hyped as a showdown between progressives and moderates with millions of dollars going to influence votes, but data indicates that San Francisco's many voters are ignoring the election entirely.

According to the city's Department of Elections, 120,000 voters had turned in their ballots as of Tuesday afternoon, which equates to about 24% of the electorate. That puts the city on track for historically low turnout unless trends change.

The last presidential primary election held in San Francisco in 2020 saw a 61% turnout. That means if the city is to reach that same percentage this time around, 220,000 ballots would have to be submitted or postmarked by Tuesday night.

That equals almost half of all registered voters in San Francisco—an amount that multiple political experts on Monday said would be a shocking figure to see turn out in such a short time frame.

"The number of votes necessary reminds me of watching the Warriors lose to the Celtics yesterday," said Eric McGhee, senior fellow and policy director at the Public Policy Institute of California. "The Warriors were down like 50 points at halftime. Technically, you could make up that difference, but it's not very likely."

A person walks past a ballot drop box outside a building with classical architecture under a cloudy sky.
A voter returns his ballot to a drop box in front of San Francisco City Hall. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

John Arntz, director of San Francisco's Department of Elections, agreed with McGhee's conclusions.

"That's a lot," said Arntz about the 220,000 figure. "But we'll have to wait and see if they do arrive."

And it's not just San Francisco that's seeing unenthused voters. Data at the state level shows Californians coming out for this primary election at the lowest rate in years, according to numbers reported by CalMatters.

The presidential primary four years ago was similar turnout-wise to 2016, when 57% of San Franciscans showed up to vote. The last time the city saw a plunge in residents coming out to the polls was in 2012, when 31% voted, an election season when Barack Obama was the incumbent presidential nominee.

Voters in San Francisco's primary election this year had the potential to flip the political orientation of the Democratic County Central Committee, which hands out its coveted endorsements in the November election.

San Franciscans also voted on several ballot measures about policing, social services and housing. There was also a state ballot proposition about mental health and the chance to boot out two judges who have been accused of being too lenient on criminals.

A man is smiling, holding campaign signs and a pamphlet promoting a judicial candidate. There's a pride flag in the background.
Judge Patrick Thompson campaigns for re-election in the Castro on Tuesday. | Source: Josh Ram/The Standard

Political analysts said there's one very obvious reason why the city may be seeing such low turnout: Competitive presidential primaries tend to get people to the polls where they additionally end up voting on local issues. This year's presidential primary contest is anything but a nail-biter—both Joe Biden and Donald Trump have been the presumptive candidates for months, which could leave voters feeling lackadaisical.

"I don’t think it's rocket science," said the Public Policy Institute's McGhee. "We had a competitive Democratic primary four years ago. San Francisco is a heavily Democratic county. There’s just not much interest [this year]."

Others wagered that there isn't any particular ballot measure that's lit the fire under voters' feet.

Patrick Murphy, a politics professor at the University of San Francisco, said that even Proposition F, a controversial ballot measure that would compel drug screening and treatment for certain welfare recipients, may not have created enough buzz on either side to get voters to the ballot box.

"For voter turnout, you need people motivated," said Murphy. "And I don’t feel that happening around this March election."

A smiling woman holds a campaign sign for a judicial candidate.
Assistant District Attorney Jean Roland campaigns at the intersection of Geary and Park Presidio boulevards on Monday. She was running for a seat on San Francisco Superior Court. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

In possibly one of the lowest turnouts in years, who benefits seems to be stumping even those who have observed San Francisco's politics for years.

On the one hand, low turnout nationally has meant more voters who are homeowners, wealthier and whiter, often meaning an advantage for moderate candidates and measures.

But analysts say that rule of thumb may not apply to San Francisco's Tuesday contest.

Jason McDaniel, a politics professor from San Francisco State University, said the increasingly high proportion of mail-in ballots being turned in translates to higher progressive involvement. That means it's anyone's ballgame, he estimates.

"I think it's not safe to assume that the low turnout is going to benefit one side or the other," McDaniel said. "You’re getting a contest between the most engaged voters on both sides."