Bring Out Your Dead: S.F.’s Swelled Voter Rolls Were Possibly Stuffed With Stiffs


Just how the hell did the city lose 43,000 registered voters in four years?

By Joe Eskenazi

We’ve all lost things: our keys, glasses, coins in the couch. But we’ve never lost 42,529 registered voters like the city of San Francisco did between 2003 and the present -– and they’re not in the couch, because we’ve checked.

San Francisco isn’t a geographically vast city, but when you misplace enough people to fill AT&T Park to capacity over four short years, something screwy is going on.

Actually, according to a handful of experts we contacted, something screwy was going on -- and now that San Francisco is on the ball, its past foolishness has become embarrassingly apparent.

“The department of elections has become, what’s the word ...

more vigorous in purging the voter rolls,” said Steven Hill, the director of the political reform program for the New America Foundation.

“In California in general and San Francisco as well, there’s always been a problem with being able to purge those lists. The current director of elections [John Arntz] has done a pretty good job, but before that there was a lot of turmoil in the department of elections -– there were like four leaders in two years. In the past it may have been incompetence or lack of attention to these sorts of details.”

Randy Shaw, executive director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, was less genteel in his word choice. In the past, “San Francisco did just a horrific job of purging the voter rolls,” he said. “I can tell you without any hesitation –- those were phantom voters. We had a large number of people on the voter rolls who were not living in the location they registered in. There used to be stories about San Francisco having certain addresses with hundreds more people than rooms. I know that as late as 2006 there were a staggering number of SRO residents who haven’t lived there in a while.”

In fact, they may not be living anywhere.

“You’ve got to understand, a lot of these people are probably dead," Shaw continues. The voting rolls "probably included everyone in San Francisco who has died, to be honest with you.”

Even from the grave, it seems, San Francisco’s voters are indifferent. At least in Chicago the dead vote!


"Excuse me, which way to the polling station?" All photos | Declan McCullagh

Yet even without the specter of phantom voters, a 43,000-person exodus off the voter rolls is hardly unprecedented in San Francisco. In 1996, a presidential election year, 481,902 city dwellers were registered to vote –- and yet, by June of 1997, only 411,230 remained. But by the 2000 presidential election, the tally was back up to 486,636. And while the Chronicle focused on the 2003 voter registration total of 466,127 for the Gavin Newsom-Matt Gonzalez mayoral showdown, it failed to mention that in ’04 –- yes, a presidential election year –- the number was up to 486,937.

Should many more San Franciscans be registered to vote by 2008? The pattern sure looks that way (though the numbers may be smaller than in past years if the department of elections is more vigilant).

“This is sort of the natural ebb and flow of voter turnout,” Hill says.

On the other hand, points out Joel Kotkin (our favorite urbanologist), the times, they are a-changin’ for San Francisco.

According to Census numbers, the city lost around 8,000 residents between 2003 and 2006. But tallying registered voters isn’t as easy as A-B=C. For one, very rarely does someone move into a city and declare, “First I’m going to register to vote and then I’m going to get something to eat!”

Secondly, Kotkin believes San Francisco’s declining voter rolls have much to do with “the long-term middle-class family flight out of San Francisco. Those are high-propensity voters.”

The families leaving the city for Moraga, Lafayette, Walnut Creek, and the like are being replaced by a “group of people who live in San Francisco and treat it like a hotel. They’re there for a few years and they leave.”

Sure, S.F. attracts its fair share of liberals, but “for every guy there’s five people who just don’t care and are more interested in reading restaurant reviews.” Besides, what’s the impetus to register to vote when San Francisco is a democratic stronghold? It’s not like Jesse Helms is going to get himself elected here.

“San Francisco has such a peculiar sociology,” notes Kotkin with a sigh. “It’ll take a good sociologist to figure it out -– or a good therapist.”

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