Voter Turnout Predicted at 25 Percent This (Non)Election

There's an election in San Francisco next week. If you're like most San Franciscans, you probably haven't heard. Or you have heard, but don't really care. Or maybe you have heard, but Gavin Newsom has a restraining order against you for stalking him and thus you are unable to come within 100 feet of the mayor's polling station.

Whatever the case, the point is that democracy is so, like, 2003 and it's, like, so boring now. So boring that local political consultants and pollsters are predicting a historically low turnout for this year's mayoral election, somewhere in the 25 to 30 percent range. Compare that to the turnout in the 2003 election: 46 percent.

The conventional wisdom behind the dismal prognosis is that there's no hot race this year to get voters excited. Newsom and Sheriff Mike Hennessey have no viable opponents, and District Attorney Kamala Harris has no opponent whatsoever.

Notwithstanding the mild flareups over Muni reform and the parking initiative, this year's ballot measures are dullsville (example: the proposition on airport-cop pensions). "We're just not seeing any passion or intensity out there," says Ben Tulchin of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, a polling firm that has done surveys for some propositions this year. "The only people who are going to vote this election are the most avid, hardcore voters."

While uncompetitive races and dull ballot measures are mostly to blame for the anticipated voter apathy, political operatives are also blaming a new city ordinance prohibiting campaign signs from being placed on utility poles in the city. It might sound like a small thing, but Eric Jaye, Mayor Newsom's top strategist, says the campaign posters served as important visual cues. "That was one of the primary ways people knew there was an election," he says. "Those signs marked the political calendar."

Maybe the most interesting thing of all about this election will be the unexpected consequences of low voter turnout: More citizen initiatives on ballots over the next four years. That's because the number of signatures required to put something on the ballot is based on how many people voted in the last mayoral election. If there's only a 30 percent turnout for this upcoming election, it'll take roughly 6,300 signatures to qualify an initiative — about 4,000 fewer signatures than it takes now.

With the bar so low, maybe next time around there'll be more weird and controversial stuff on the ballot to spice things up. Here's an idea: an initiative authorizing the city to buy the Chronicle building and convert it into a homeless shelter.

 
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