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Monday, March 11, 2002

Iconoclastically Speaking

Musings on a No-Show Election

By Betsey Culp

Six months ago “they” announced that the implosion of three buildings, two in New York and one in Washington, had changed Americans forever. As flags sprouted from windows and car antennas, commentators heralded the new patriotic energy that was reputedly sweeping the country.

Six months later, in the aftermath of Tuesday’s primary election, it appears that little has actually changed. People waving flags do not automatically translate into voters. Apathy rolls toward the polls like gooey chocolate sauce running down the side of an ice cream sundae.

In San Francisco, registered voters account for approximately half the population. Of them, approximately 27 percent – one-eighth of the population – managed to cast ballots. Therefore – follow my math – even in a landslide victory, less than 10 percent of the population would have elected a candidate or passed a proposition.

San Francisco is, of course, not unique in its low voter turnout, not is it the worst. But because San Francisco is known throughout the country for the lively political participation of its people, it’s painful to discover that its electorate is as naked as any you‘ll find elsewhere.

Undoubtedly, a close examination would reveal many of the same electoral ills infecting voters here as elsewhere – a general distrust of the political process, corruption weariness, a feeling that “my vote won’t make any difference.” But the symptoms are a little different.

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Despite the city’s reputation for a wide open system, close observers of local political processes quickly discover that the cast of characters is limited and repetitive. Ward McAllister’s “Four Hundred” socially acceptable citizens have been replaced by a small number of politically active residents. Whether they’re government officials or not, you know their names: they testify frequently before city committee hearings, and their opinions frequently appear in city newspapers.

But their actual numbers are small, and I’ll wager that many San Franciscans do not feel that these people represent them.

Whether in fact they do is moot, for it’s rare to see a full treatment of their activities in the press. And despite our much-vaunted Sunshine Act, much transpires behind closed doors.

Take, for example, Chris Daly’s recent summit on homelessness, which received little advance publicity and distorted reports afterward. Ilene Lelchuk, writing for the Chronicle, emphasized its rowdy aspects: “As hard as organizers of San Francisco's summit on homelessness tried to keep the discourse civil yesterday, a passionate crowd of advocates for homeless people booed and hissed speakers who called for bans on public urination and changes in welfare checks.” The Examiner dismissed the meeting as “Politics, As Usual,” with Nina Wu focusing not on the event but on the mayor’s absence.

Neither paper managed to explain that the summit’s emphasis on the Continuum of Care was not a case of same-old, same old, but a reiteration of support for the service agencies and homeless people who had compiled it. Neither managed to explain that the Continuum of Care, which the supervisors had voted for and the mayor had vetoed, provided a comprehensive plan for alleviating homeless in San Francisco long before Gavin Newsom or Tony Hall began to re-invent the wheel.

Some 750 interested people gathered in Herbst Theater to discuss one of the city’s most pressing problems, and the media never gave the general public an inkling of what they said. But then, Chris Daly didn’t waste too much energy in publicizing his event either – it took a last-minute op-ed piece in the Chronicle by Angela Alioto to alert ordinary folks that the summit was about to occur.

I wonder, though, how much PR work we should expect participants in the political process to do. Isn’t it the job of a free press in a free society to provide accurate information about the workings of the people’s government?

If so, the local press has failed miserably. Take, as another example, the travails of Proposition A before the election. The “hoodlumistic” Prop A, as Warren Hinckle called it, proposed a system of preferential voting that would create “instant runoffs.” An editorial in the Chronicle called it “a confusing and potentially unwieldy scheme.” In a news story, Ilene Lelchuk continued the theme: “Proposition A could draw more people to the polls – or it could make voters dizzy with confusion.” It was not until after the voters approved the proposition that Rachel Gordon, writing in the Chronicle, presented a straightforward explanation of how it would work.

So how does this wide open political town function? By a small cadre of political activists – both “machine” and “anti-machine” – doing their own thing, while the general electorate has little idea of what’s going on. By a small group of media representatives doing their own thing, while the general electorate has little idea of what’s going on. No wonder the public has little interest in voting.

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The mayor and the Chronicle have embarked on a campaign to dissipate our political apathy and re-create public excitement about the city of San Francisco. Almost immediately after the election, they announced a five-day festival honoring Herb Caen, the man who created a mythical city that its citizens and the rest of the world came to believe. Caen’s Baghdad by the Bay is witty, urbane, civilized – and out of date. I fear that the celebration at the beginning of April will only serve to reinforce San Franciscan’s feelings that their leaders’ activities have little relevance for them.

As part of the program, the Chronicle announced a “write alike” contest, with a prize to be given to the writer whose style comes closest to Caen‘s. The entrants may be in for a shock. Several years ago, I immersed myself in the Sackamenna Kid’s columns and tried to write one of my own. Never even came close. When the guy was on, he was good.

But what about the prospect of Caenomania saving the city? As part of preparation for this article, I went out in search of a book to peruse. I stopped in a neighborhood independent bookstore that shall remain nameless – one of those little stores that prides itself on knowledge ability and helpfulness.

“Do you have anything by Herb Caen?” I asked the thirty-something clerk.

She looked puzzled. “What was that name – Herb King?”

Carefully I spelled it out.

Carefully she spelled it out, as she entered it into the computer.

No, she reported, there was nothing, except The Cablecar and the Dragon, Caen’s book for kids.

What, I wondered as I left the store, were entrants in the contest supposed to use as a guide – nostalgia?

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The astonishing thing about this city is that even a small percentage of the electorate continues to do their civic duty. Yet they do, determinedly and proudly.

While a lot of you were out playing Mary last Tuesday, finding a place near the center of action, I chose the less dramatic route of Martha: I served as a poll worker. I encountered at first hand the extremely flawed system that the Department of Elections was forced to work within (SF Call, March 4, 2002: Make Your Vote Count; Or, Make Them Count Your Vote). I also encountered a number of intelligent, dedicated volunteers who arrived at 6:00 am, kept their cool throughout a long day, and still managed to tally up those endless piles of different ballots after closing time at 8:00 pm.

But the surprise was the voters. I watched people who could barely read English, or barely read at all, spend 45 minutes in the voting booth, bent over their ballot, meticulously filling it out. I watched old people arrive hand-in-hand with a grandchild who would act as their translator. I watched young parents proudly show their own children what it meant to vote.

For these people, the act of voting was a labor of love. These people were proud of being part of the democratic process, or at least what they thought was a democratic process.

They didn’t know that their precious democracy had constricted into an oligarchy, into government by a few. They didn’t realize that the much-touted progressive victory of the past few years would not become a reality until every citizen turns out to vote.