Nov 14, 2022 - Politics

The role of recalls in San Francisco's democracy

Illustration of San Francisco City Hall with lines radiating from it.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

San Francisco Mayor London Breed played an outsized role in this year's midterm elections.

What's happening: Six public officials Breed appointed earlier in 2022 — due to school board and district attorney recalls, and vacant seats in District 6 and on San Francisco City College's Board of Trustees — each led their respective races, per preliminary results from San Francisco’s Department of Elections as of Sunday.

Why it matters Recall elections, funded by taxpayers, often have low voter turnout, enabling few to make decisions on behalf of the many.

  • Successful recalls enable the mayor to wield power to appoint public officials, who become incumbents in future elections.
  • And incumbents have a significant advantage over their competition.

By the numbers: This year's recall election of District Attorney Chesa Boudin had a 46.37% voter turnout, and the school board recall saw 36.01%, per the San Francisco Department of Elections.

  • Comparatively, voter turnout in SF was 86.33% for the November 2020 general election.

Yes, but: Voter turnout was also low in the 2019 mayoral election, with just 42% of registered voters submitting ballots.

  • Plus, mayor-appointed candidates aren't always shoo-ins, political consultant Jim Ross told Axios.
  • In 2019, for example, both District 5 Supervisor Dean Preston and Boudin narrowly beat mayor-appointed Vallie Brown and Suzy Loftus, respectively.
  • District 3 Supervisor Aaron Peskin said it would be "historic" if voters approved all of Breed's appointees, noting the likelihood of an appointed supervisor retaining their seat is usually a "50/50 proposition."

Context: The idea of a recall originated in Los Angeles in 1898 in response to corruption, political consultant Jim Ross told Axios.

  • "That should be the role that it plays in our Democracy, to remove corrupt politicians from office," he said. "Not as a tool for a losing side to rerun an election."

What they're saying: Appointed public officials "still have to run a good campaign and still have to be compelling and present a positive contrast to whoever [they're] up against" Ross said.

  • Peskin echoed that sentiment, telling Axios, "there were way more factors [in Breed's appointees this year getting elected] than the fact that the mayor appointed them," adding they were likely a "good fit" and "managed to comport themselves well enough in the first months in that office."

The bottom line: Recalls can be an "important tool in an electoral democracy. It gives voters the opportunity to say, 'Hey, we made a mistake and this person turned out to be nuts,'" Peskin said.

  • Still, the longtime supervisor, who's made multiple attempts to reform San Francisco's recall process, worries about giving the mayor the power to appoint supervisors, which he thinks "eliminates the checks and balances" in City Hall.
  • Peskin says San Francisco should follow what happens in Congress and that if a supervisor's seat becomes vacant, the city should hold a special election.
  • "I don't think it's a constitutional crisis," he said. "[But] I think that if we had a more perfect system, we would amend our charter in a few ways to strengthen the fundamental, American principles of the separation of powers and checks and balances."

What to watch: Peskin hinted that he might propose new changes within the next couple of years.

Meanwhile, in order for Breed's appointees to go 6-for-6, school board candidate Ann Hsu will need to hang onto a narrow lead with some 60,000 votes left to be counted.


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