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San Francisco Chronicle

Record-low vote came at high price: City attorney runoff cost S.F. $2 million, or $29 per ballot
By Ilene Lelchuk
December 13, 2001

San Francisco's runoff for city attorney on Tuesday produced a record- low voter turnout and cost roughly $29 per vote.

Just one in every six registered voters stepped into a ballot booth or mailed an absentee ballot from home -- San Francisco's worst voting record in at least 30 years.

Still, Department of Elections chief Tammy Haygood had to open more than 600 precincts and hire 4,000 poll workers and inspectors. She estimated that the election cost $2 million, not including the money she owes the Sheriff's Department for guarding ballots.

The low turnout means that Dennis Herrera, a maritime attorney and former police commissioner, was "swept" into the city attorney's office with about 36, 400 votes. There are 453,961 registered voters in San Francisco.

Haygood has 5,100 absentee and provisional ballots to count. But those won't change the outcome or improve the dismal voter turnout.

The odds of motivating voters were against Herrera and opponent Jim Lazarus from the start. Theirs was the only race on the ballot; the two similar candidates ran lackluster campaigns until last week; and few residents knew what the city attorney does -- even though it's the second-most-powerful post at City Hall.

"People don't understand how this office relates to their day-to-day lives," said longtime local pollster David Binder.

Add the holidays and a war in Afghanistan into the mix and you've got a script for a sleeper, even in a city that's more politically active than most.

It's not the first time a runoff race has attracted little attention, but it could be the last.

"I think Tuesday night spelled the end to December runoffs," said Supervisor Mark Leno, who supports a March ballot measure that would create instant runoffs for city offices.

Under the plan, voters would rank their top two or three candidates. As choices are eliminated, votes would move to the top candidates until someone receives a majority.

Advocates are using Tuesday's election as the poster child for their cause.

"It just makes more sense to pay for one election instead of two," said Caleb Kleppner, project director of the Center for Voting and Democracy, which works to increase voter participation.

Leno said the supervisors considered moving the runoff election so candidates wouldn't run into the December holiday blues. But holding a primary election in the fall and a runoff in November would conflict with Jewish holidays each fall.

San Francisco's second-lowest voter turnout election was in June 1993. A mere 20 percent of voters turned out to decide a quarter-cent sales tax that benefited public schools.

This time, Lazarus was depending on high-propensity voters -- the more conservative residents, homeowners and longtime renters -- to help him repeat his Nov. 6 general election result as top finisher in the contest.

But Herrera tapped a relatively new bloc of motivated voters: the young progressives from the Mission, Potrero Hill and Haight, who supported Supervisor Tom Ammiano's write-in campaign for mayor in 1999 and swept a slate of like-minded supervisors into office in 2000.

Herrera focused his last-minute mailers on these groups, hitting Lazarus as a Reagan-era conservative and pal of PG&E.

"For years, I've been saying low turnout would help a Lazarus type of candidate," Binder said. "The longtime rule of thumb was that conservative and Republican voters contribute to a higher portion of voters in low-turnout elections. But the last couple of elections . . . we saw it's really the more moderates who stay at home in a low-turnout election."

Binder welcomes changes to the runoff process to motivate more voters, as does the next city attorney.

E-mail Ilene Lelchuk at [email protected]

CHART 1:  San Francisco city attorney tally

Here are the results of the San Francisco city attorney election on Tuesday. The Department of Elections has 5,100 absentee and provisional ballots left to count:

Dennis Herrera   36,437   52.02 percent

Jim Lazarus         33,316  47.57 percent

Ballots counted   70,244

Voter turnout                    15.47 percent

CHART 2: San Francisco voter turnout

Tuesday's 15.47 percent turnout by San Francisco voters for the city attorney runoff election was the lowest on record for at least the past 30 years. The chart lists the percentage of voters who went to the polls for local and special San Francisco elections during that time, according to Department of Elections records. The chart includes December runoff elections in previous mayoral, district attorney and city attorney campaigns.

11/04/75   72.7%
12/11/75   66.42%
8/2/77     53.08%
11/8/77    51.75%
11/6/79    55.06%
12/11/79   51.91%
11/3/81    25.22%
4/26/83    47.24%
11/8/83    45.99%
11/5/85    27.02%
6/2/87     25.6%
11/3/87    51.18%
12/8/87    40.36%
11/7/89    44.84%
11/5/91    47.61%
12/10/91   50.73%
6/15/93    20.11%
11/2/93    37.21%
11/7/95    51.86%
12/12/95   46.56%
6/3/97     43.52%
11/4/97    30.41%
11/2/99    44.95%
12/14/99   48.8%
11/6/01    29.6%
12/11/01   15.47%

Source: San Francisco Department of Elections

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Copyright 2001 The Center for Voting and Democracy
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(301) 270-4616 ____ [email protected]