51,325 people—or about 10% of San Francisco’s registered voters. That’s the exact number of valid signatures needed to get a recall election on the ballot, and the group hoping to unseat three San Francisco school board members says they just surpassed it.
To the untrained eye, it might seem like time for co-founders Siva Raj and Autumn Looijen to close down the makeshift headquarters they’ve built in their rented Lower Haight apartment and take a break from campaigning. But that’s not exactly how recalls in San Francisco work.
With a Sept. 7 deadline looming, Raj and Looijen are angling to hit 70,000 signatures per school board member as a safety buffer. The Department of Elections typically rejects 20% to 30% of signatures as invalid due to duplicates, non-resident signatures or other issues, according to experts—and the campaign isn’t taking any chances.
“So let me introduce you to the biggest marker you’ve ever seen,” laughs Looijen on a Wednesday afternoon in late July, holding up a giant sharpie she uses to cross out duplicates. “It’s a lot of manual work after the petitions come in,” adds Raj.
But interviews with political strategists suggest the campaign is well on its way to hitting 70,000 signatures and qualifying.
“It sure looks like they are very likely to qualify unless something strange happens or their validity rate is significantly off,” said Maggie Muir, a partner with KMM Strategies.
As of Aug. 11, the campaign has more than 51,400 signatures each for school board President Gabriela López and Commissioner Alison Collins, and more than 48,700 signatures for Vice President Faauuga Moliga, according to organizers.
Between July 30 and Aug. 6, the campaign collected approximately 5,500 signatures per school board member.
If they meet that same rate for the next four weeks, they’ll hit their target of 70,000 for all three commissioners. The campaign is also verifying signatures as they go and says they have a better-than-average validity rate of about 83%.
Political strategist Jim Ross told Here/Say that because of that high validity rate, 70,000 is probably more than the campaign needs to qualify.
“They're definitely on track,” said Ross.
Raj and Looijen are optimistic about their odds, and say the second half of August should be especially active for the campaign as families return to San Francisco from trips or vacations.
“School opens up on Aug. 16. Our volunteers will be back,” said Looijen. “We know we’ll make our numbers.”
Here/Say reached out to each of the three school board members facing recall for comment. Lopez and Collins did not respond in time for publication.
In an emailed statement, Moliga said he would refrain from weighing in on the recall process unless enough signatures are submitted to trigger an election.
However, Moliga emphasized that his priorities for the coming school year are “to ensure we have a successful reopening of schools, that we keep our students and staff safe as we navigate through this pandemic and that we implement an inclusive Superintendent search that identifies the best person to lead San Francisco's public schools into the future.”
The recall effort was largely fueled by dissatisfaction with the slow pace of reopening San Francisco public schools last year.
Raj and Looijen originally launched the effort as a grassroots campaign, capping donations at $99 and relying solely on volunteers. They switched up their strategy in late May when it became clear they wouldn’t reach the number of signatures needed to qualify without hiring paid signature gatherers. They upped their donation cap to $49,500.
“A recall is a very high bar to collect signatures for. And the fact that this campaign got almost 23,000 just from the volunteer effort is really impressive,” said Muir.
“I think the public is very clear in its unhappiness with the policies of the school board. And this is certainly an outlet that they can absolutely tap into to express their outrage and frustration,” she added.
As of July 31, the campaign had raised $394,000. Of its donors, 82% are San Francisco residents and 69% contributed $100 or less, according to organizers.
If the effort succeeds, it’ll mark the first time in nearly four decades that a recall campaign makes it to the ballot, following an attempt to recall then-Mayor Diane Feinstein in 1983. Though organizers collected about 24,000 valid signatures—more than the 19,357 needed at the time to qualify—Feinstein wound up beating the recall in a landslide.
This time around, voter sentiment appears to be on the recall effort’s side. A Feb. 2021 poll conducted by EMC Research and commissioned by “private business leaders,” according to The Chronicle, found that 60% of registered San Francisco voters supported recalling the school board members. Two polls in May showed just a 10% positive rating for the school board.
If it qualifies, the recall campaign expects that a special election will be held sometime between Nov. 2021 and Feb. 2022. The ballot will have a simple Yes/No question for each of the three board members eligible for recall. If any school board member is recalled, the mayor will appoint their replacement.
William Hack, who was a SFUSD teacher, principal and arts supervisor for 30 years, told Here/Say that he’s “never seen a board that behaves like this one.”
For Hack, Alison Collins’ $87 million lawsuit against SFUSD was particularly egregious and reason enough to support a recall.
“That money would come directly out of the school district's operating budget. It’s money that's intended for students and teachers and school operations. I think that's reason enough to support the recall,” he said.
Raj and Looijen are already thinking about who might replace the three board members should San Francisco voters unseat them. The duo hopes to run an open process to identify qualified candidates for the mayor to consider.
“What we want to do is find all possible good candidates for the school board, ask them the hard questions that no one asks them, like, what are you going to do about the budget deficit?” said Looijen. The district is facing a structural deficit that could balloon to $122 million by 2024, and that may be worsened by a drop in enrollment during the pandemic.
“We’ll post all the answers and let people all over the city vote up and down on them,” added Looijen.
In addition to the recall targeting the school board, there is also an effort to unseat San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin over concerns about safety in the city. California voters will also decide whether to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom in a special election scheduled for Sept. 14.
Sophie Bearman can be reached at [email protected]