Why is the number of early votes for the San Francisco special election so low?

As of Thursday, just over 105,000 San Francisco voters had returned their mail-in ballots for Tuesday’s special election citywide. That’s just a fraction of anticipated return rates in recent elections, according to data from the San Francisco Department of Elections.

In the last statewide special election of 2021 in which Governor Gavin Newsom was to be recalled, the number of mail-in ballots returned by voters in San Francisco five days before Election Day was around 220,000, more than double the current tally for this election. . For the 2020 presidential election, there were 270,000 elected at a similar time.

Those numbers translate to early return rates — the number of ballots returned divided by ballots cast — of 21% for the current election, 42% for the 2021 Newsom recall and 50% for the 2020 presidential election.

The Feb. 15 special ballot asks all San Franciscans to vote on the recall of three members of the San Francisco Unified School District Board of Trustees and the city’s assessor-recorder. Voters living in the eastern half of the city will also vote for their representative in the national assembly.

As with the last two elections – Newsom 2021 and Presidential elections 2020 – all registered voters received ballots in the mail several weeks before Election Day – result of the mail-in ballot program established for the 2020 elections in response to the pandemic. Voters can return marked ballots by mail or in person at polling stations or drop-off points located throughout the city. The early vote counts analyzed in this story are an aggregate of mail-in ballots collected at these locations and ballots cast early at in-person voter centers, although the vast majority are mail-in ballots dismissed.

But although every voter in San Francisco will receive an absentee ballot, Paul Mitchell, vice president of California-based Political Data Inc., expects turnout in this election to be much lower than of the two previous elections. He also believes a 21% early return rate tracks past special election rates citywide.

According to Mitchell, voter turnout is determined by two key factors: whether voters have the means to vote and whether they are motivated to do so. Although mailing absentee ballots to all voters removes some of the mechanical barriers to voting, people still need to be motivated to mark their ballots and return them. “Giving everyone a ballot in a low-motivation election isn’t going to get people to vote,” Mitchell said. San Francisco’s weakest election in the past two decades was the December 2001 mayoral runoff for city attorney, in which 17% of registered voters turned out.

Early participation is higher in some groups than in others. A quarter of registered Republicans have returned ballots so far, 4 percentage points higher than the Democrats’ anticipated return rate of 21%. Registered Republicans, however, make up just 7% of all registered voters in San Francisco, while registered Democrats make up 63%.

This pattern deviates from what we have seen in the past two elections, where Democrats had return rates nine percentage points higher than Republicans on the Thursday before Election Day. Mitchell said the higher rates among Republicans in this election are consistent with trends he’s seen in pre-pandemic elections. Early votes traditionally come from voters who tend to be older, whiter, higher-income and more conservative, Mitchell said.

Take the 2018 gubernatorial election, for example. On the Thursday before Election Day, the relative differences in the party distribution of early voters resemble what we see for the current election – Registered Republicans were more likely to vote. returned ballots than the Democrats by eight points.

This trend, however, was reversed in 2020 when then-President Donald Trump cast doubt on mail-in voting and the coronavirus pandemic prompted new legislation requiring mail-in ballots to be sent to every registered voter in California, Mitchell said. .

Current return rates broken down by the city’s two state assembly districts show lower turnout so far in District 17 — the district whose representative is running for office. On Thursday, 19% of ballots issued to voters living in District 17 were returned, compared to 22% in District 19.

This, however, is similar to trends seen in overall voter turnout over the past two elections. In the 2021 Newsom and 2020 presidential elections, voters in District 17 were more likely to vote than those living in District 19.

The Chronicle further detailed the data by examining neighborhoods, as defined by the San Francisco Department of Elections, and identified neighborhoods with particularly high or low early turnout compared to 2021 turnout rates. the top neighborhoods with the most ballots returned so far include West Twin Peaks, Sea Cliff/Presidio Heights and Diamond Heights. All three also saw relatively high attendance in 2021.

Some neighborhoods, however, have much higher return rates compared to 2021 turnout. In the Outer Sunset, 24% of ballots issued have been returned so far – tied for fourth on 26 quarters. But when Newsom was recalled in 2021, the ward’s overall turnout was ranked No. 14.

Meanwhile, neighborhoods such as Haight-Ashbury and North Bernal Heights have relatively lower early return rates. Haight-Ashbury is currently among the neighborhoods with the lowest early return rates – ranked No. 16 – but had one of the highest turnout rates in 2021 – ranked No. 7.

These neighborhood patterns mirror previous findings that show three-member school board recall support concentrated in areas on the west side of the city. For example, the ZIP code with the highest share of recall signatures among registered voters is 94127, located southwest of Twin Peaks, and the ZIP code with the second highest percentage is 94166 in the Sunset District. .

Nami Sumida is a Data Visualization Developer at the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: nami.sumida@sfchronicle.comTwitter: @namisumida

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