Boris Delepine was optimistic as he drove out of the Excelsior District toward City Hall on election night last December. A full-time volunteer for mayoral aspirant Matt Gonzalez, Delepine, 31, had spent the evening in a final flurry of campaigning in supervisorial District 11. He coordinated the efforts of other volunteers who waved yellow “Matt for Mayor” signs, chatted people up in BART stations, and handed out Gonzalez fliers door to door one last time. After the polls closed, Delepine swung by two Excelsior polling places and read the results, which were taped to the front doors. Gleefully, he noted that Gonzalez had won in both precincts.
But when Delepine turned on his car radio to hear the citywide vote counts, his good mood fizzled. The absentee ballots, first to be tallied, had come in — and 65 percent of them had been cast for Gonzalez's opponent, Gavin Newsom. “That's it,” Delepine thought. “Gonzalez is going to lose.” It was too big a lead for his candidate to make up for in the remainder of the ballots.
Delepine was right. Though 11,461 more voters chose Gonzalez at the polls on Election Day (86,835 ballots to Newsom's 75,374), it wasn't enough to make up the difference in absentee ballots, Newsom's ace in the hole. He was the choice of 58,172 absentee voters, versus 32,494 for Gonzalez. Delepine vowed such a thing would never happen again in San Francisco.
Soon after the election, Delepine and three other full-time Gonzalez volunteers — John Radogno, Richard Marquez, and Bruce Wolfe — set to work. They plunked down an undisclosed amount of personal funds, rented an office in the Redstone Building on 16th and Mission streets, and, together with some volunteers and paid staffers, launched the Progressive Voter Project. Its mission is to sign up thousands of political progressives as permanent absentee voters.
Its basic tactic is old-fashioned pavement pounding. Each Saturday, PVP workers stand on the corner of 16th and Mission, imploring working-class folk to sign up as permanent absentees. They go to progressive political events — like Dennis Kucinich for President rallies — and hit people up with the forms. A few weeks ago, Gonzalez and fellow Supervisor Jake McGoldrick — both lefties who would benefit from more progressive absentee voters — threw a party at a Richmond District club. The price of admission? To sign up as a permanent absentee voter. Since starting the drive a month ago, the PVP has already signed up 1,000 new absentee voters.
“We're going to expand our efforts … shoot for 10 to 25,000 by the November elections,” says Wolfe.
Building such a base has several advantages. By converting self-identified progressives like Gonzalez supporters and potential progressives such as blue-collar Latinos to permanent absentees, the PVP hopes to ensure higher Election Day turnouts by its constituency. One of the big problems for any campaign is getting people who would have voted for your issue or candidate to actually go to the polls. Time constraints and inclement weather historically decrease voter turnout. But local absentee voters are nearly twice as likely to actually cast their ballots, according to data from the last two mayoral runoffs.
“The theory is that if the ballot gets mailed to them, they're more likely to return their ballot,” says Gonzalez, who remains president of the Board of Supervisors. “So the likelihood of maybe it will rain or you have to stay at work late — the impact on voter turnout sort of disappears.”
The PVP likes to point out to potential converts that, as an absentee voter, they can even vote in their pajamas if they want.
“It's really a no-brainer,” says Vicki Leidner, who works for the Progressive Voter Project. “The return postage is even prepaid.”
The benefits of having a large vote-in-your-jammies base were recognized early by Newsom's campaign. Months prior to the November general election, potential Newsom voters received absentee voter applications by mail, and a well-organized army of volunteers knocked on doors, signing up more people in traditionally less liberal areas like West of Twin Peaks.
“I remember being out in the field, a week after the general election, and the Newsom campaign was out there like a big, lean machine, ready to roll,” says former Gonzalez volunteer Richard Marquez, a founding PVP member. “They were ready to go with thousands of prepackaged absentee ballots, going door to door.”
According to the city Elections Department, prior to the November election, the Newsom campaign signed up 220 new absentee voters. Campaigners for Proposition M, Newsom's anti-panhandling initiative, signed up another 2,400 absentee voters. By contrast, Tom Ammiano's mayoral campaign signed up exactly seven new absentee voters before the November election. Gonzalez's signed up none.
Between the November election and the December runoff, Newsom's campaign signed up 2,325 more absentee voters. Another 1,565 signed up through Yes on M. And the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, which endorsed Prop. M, signed up an additional 1,000 absentee voters.
Gonzalez's unimpressive showing in absentee voter sign-ups reflected his relative lack of funding, PVP organizers say. Mailing out absentee applications requires postage, and that's expensive when the applications number in the tens of thousands. Signing up absentees also takes manpower and good organization. While the art- and poetry-loving supervisor's campaign overflowed with high-energy volunteers, especially in its last weeks, it was no match for Newsom's.
“Every time a [progressive] campaign starts up, it seems like they're busy trying to start from scratch,” says Marquez. The Gonzalez campaign didn't have the resources to send out any mailings until the third week in November — only two weeks before the runoff.
For PVP members, the lesson of the mayor's race was that not signing up enough absentee voters can spell political doom. Though “Matt for Mayor” signs and cheering volunteers popped up on numerous street corners on Election Day, a silent constituency had already chosen a new mayor — Newsom — from the comfort of its members' living rooms.
“Optimism is a good thing, but there were false hopes [on the part of Gonzalez campaigners] that we could win without doing the groundwork, voter by voter, [in a] hard-fought street war,” says Marquez. Next time around, the PVP hopes to be ready with a powerful corps of voters who can give a decisive edge to their political hero — quite possibly while lounging in their jammies.