San Francisco Voter Guide, Mar 2024


For a few years now I’ve been writing an informal voter guide for some friends. It’s basically a byproduct of my own decision process: I need to figure out how to vote, and I may as well tell you. I’m now publishing it for anyone who finds it helpful.

Before we get started, a bit about my political views and how they affect this voter guide, to get a sense of whether and where you might agree with me:

  • I’m a software engineer who once minored in political science, and have lived in SF for about 8 years now; see more about me.
  • I’m a registered Democrat. In general I consider myself very progressive, but care more than many progressives about good government, realistic economics, and general competence. In practice in SF this puts me somewhere in the middle between the “moderates” and the “progressives”, and I tend to agree with urbanists and YIMBYs on housing and related issues.
  • I’m not a fan of the number of propositions we get in California. I sometimes joke about the “anti-proposition voter guide” which is not real but if it were it would endorse no on everything that could possibly be done legislatively. I don’t always follow that theory, but I tend to hew a bit closer to it than most of the voter guides out there.
  • I’m very excited about democracy and about the fact that you and I might not agree on absolutely everything. In this voter guide, I’ll try to tell you what I actually think, whether I’m quite certain or not really sure yet. I don’t do “no endorsement”: I have to decide what to put on my ballot, even if it’s a weak leaning, and so do you. (I basically never leave a race blank.) I’ll also usually try to tell you why you might disagree, if I think people with broadly similar values but some differences of opinion might want to vote another way.
  • For reference, my voter guide from last time around is here.
  • Needless to say, these are my own views and not those of anybody else.

I may still edit this guide up until election day (and will try to leave a changelog if I do). If you think I’ve missed something important in some race, by all means let me know via the links in the header!


Federal & state candidates:

SF candidates:

State proposition:

SF propositions:

I’ve also put these in a sheet along with other endorsements I consulted (inclusion doesn’t imply I agree with the endorser or their endorsement, of course).

Federal & state candidates

  • President: Biden

I kinda wish we were having a real primary, but we aren’t. Pretending we are doesn’t seem very useful to me.

The other question here is if you should change registration to vote in the Republican primary; the problem is that DCCC is on the same ballot, and that vote is more likely to matter.

Update March 4: A few folks have asked whether they should vote “uncommitted” here as a protest vote against Biden’s policy towards Israel. For better or worse, in California, unlike in Nevada and Michigan, only votes for a candidate will be counted. You can of course leave the race blank or write-in whatever you want, but I think “how many voters returned Dem ballots without a valid vote for president” is not a stat that news organizations will look at. A vote for Dean Phillips might be more “noticed” but is also a less clear statement; there’s not a great answer sadly.

  • US Senate (twice): Lee

First, let’s take a moment to celebrate that we have three good candidates: Lee, Porter, and Schiff. Seriously! All three have experience in the House, seem to be good team players, and any of the three will be a fine Senator.

Two brief meta-notes:

  • There’s an argument here to vote strategically; polling suggests it’ll be Schiff and a Republican because Lee and Porter are splitting the progressive vote. But I think it’s pretty weak: I’m not worried about the risk of Schiff losing the general, and Lee and Porter are close enough that it’s unclear who to coalesce behind anyway.
  • As with last cycle, don’t forget to vote for the same candidate twice (once for the two months Nov-Jan and once for the subsequent 6 years).

Back to the candidates. In general, Lee is the most progressive, Schiff the moderate, and Porter somewhere in between. For example, Lee is a frequent author of proposals to tax the rich, Porter has voted for some of them, and Schiff’s website only mentions reverting the Trump corporate tax cuts. How much does that all matter? A little: none of the three would be anywhere near the Senate median vote, but these things can matter on the margin when it comes to less-partisan laws.

Porter and Schiff both became famous for their roles on TV: Porter for effectively questioning, among others, Bank CEOs and Trump cabinet secretaries; and Schiff for prosecuting the Trump impeachment. Lee, meanwhile, became famous for being the only member of Congress to vote against the 2001 AUMF (which was initially used in Afghanistan but thereafter in a list of countries over 30 pages long). She voted against it because “we must be careful not to embark on an open-ended war with neither an exit strategy nor a focused target”; at the time she got death threats but after two decades of forever wars she was right to worry.

In a race with such good options, that’s what stands out to me. We have plenty of Senators who can do a good televised prosecution. But I’m not sure we have any with the moral clarity of Barbara Lee.

  • US House D11: Pelosi

I dunno, man, I think Nancy Pelosi is an American hero and also that it’s time for her to step aside. But this year even the B-league challengers are seemingly waiting it out for the inevitable free-for-all when she does; none of the other Dems running seem particularly worth even a protest vote.

  • CA Senate D11: Wiener

Another four years, another million great pieces of legislation from our hero Scott Wiener. (Also none of the opposition seems remotely worthwhile.) Four more years!

  • CA Assembly D17: Haney

Haney has done quite a lot of good stuff in just 2 years in the Assembly! It’s funny to me how much the job of the San Francisco state representatives is to force San Francisco to build housing. Anyway, he’s great and neither challenger seems serious anyway.

SF candidates

  • Superior Court, Seat 1: Begert
  • Superior Court, Seat 13: Thompson

This is a retention election for Thompson and Begert. In general the challenges are running as “tough on crime”. Of course because it’s a judge election (or maybe just because) they don’t actually say much about what they think the incumbents have done wrong. But the PACs do, and it seems to all be “sourced” to another PAC’s “judge report card”, which itself seems to be quite lightly sourced. Meanwhile the challengers didn’t even bother trying to get the Bar Association to rate them. Judge elections are always hard to read but I don’t see any reason to vote for the challengers.

  • Democratic County Central Committee AD17: Avalos, Chandler, Dorsey, Gallotta, Heiken, Kim, Lai, Mahmood, Martinez, Ochoa, Rosselli, Sangirardi, Tizedes, Zamora

First of all I must follow the ritual of every voter guide and explain to you what the DCCC is. They run the SF Democratic Party (think voter registration and fundraising), and importantly they make the official Dem endorsements in city races. Got it? Good. The elections are by assembly district and here in AD17 we get to vote for 14 of 30 candidates, lucky us.

There are two big slates:

  • The Labor & Working Families slate is the more progressive slate. Four are incumbents, and they would probably continue on a similar path.
  • The SF Democrats for Change slate is the more moderate slate. They are basically running on the idea that the SF Dems are too far left.

If one of those is obviously right for you, go for it. Personally I found neither was really right for me, so I’m voting for a mix of the two. So, who?

I would love to be able to pick candidates based on their competence, especially since the DCCC, at least in principle, does more than just endorse. Sadly, it’s so hard to find information on that sort of thing, especially when many of the candidates have never held elected office. So instead, after excluding some candidates who I have more disagreements with than most, I’m looking for candidates who seem thoughtful rather than just repeating the party line: the job here is to write the party line! For this I mostly used the three endorsement questionnaires from the Young Dems, League of Conservation Voters, and GrowSF.

I ruled out the following on the basis of substantive disagreements:

  • Barnes thinks that the problem with Chesa was that his “goal was to center victims and support restorative justice”. She seems to think we can’t do any criminal justice reform until there’s no property crime. This jumped out at me as the wrong way to go about it, even among a bunch of people who supported the recall.
  • Bell, Berry, and Jeremy Lee all have anti-transit/anti-bike lane opinions that are too much for me.
  • Tung’s statement that she is “consistently the only common sense voice on the current DCCC” is just bad vibes. (In her GrowSF questionnaire she refers her disagreement with “22 of the 24 elected members”, which numerically includes several members I much respect.)

I ruled out the following on general lack of thoughtfulness:

  • From the Labor slate, many of the candidates seem to have given the same answers to almost the entire Young Dems questionnaire, even to the point of all saying (word-for-word) that “I have seen people drive past the barriers [on two specific slow streets]”. (Did they all visit the exact same slow streets?) While I have no problem with candidates discussing issues together, I want to see them express opinions or admit what they don’t know, so I ruled out the candidates that had hardly anything of their own to say: Chung, Hardy, Nguyen, Simpson, and Velasquez.
  • From the Change slate, several of the candidates just didn’t say much at all: they only filed out the GrowSF questionnaire, did little beyond the checkboxes there, and didn’t even have much of their own to say on the slate’s website. On this basis I ruled out: Akbar, Ho, Peter Lee, Laurance Lem Lee, and Werbach.
  • Christensen is not on a slate and I can’t find any substantive information about him.

That leaves the candidates above, which for reference includes 7 from the Dems for Change slate, 6 from Labor & Working Families, and 1 on neither slate. In general I think my choices were a bit more arbitrary than usual — it’s hard to choose 14 out of 30 rigorously — so thoughts here on anything I missed are especially welcome. For good measure I’ll comment on a few that I have specific positive things to say about:

  • I disagree with Dorsey about a lot, but I’ve found him to be more thoughtful as a supervisor than I expected.
  • I don’t know Lai personally, but several mutual friends attest that he’s smart and thoughtful.
  • Mahmood wins the prize for the question “Tell us one thing you think needs to change in SF that the average voter wouldn’t know about” with an answer I indeed knew nothing about, alongside other thoughtful answers.
  • Sangirardi stood out as one of the most thoughtful candidates, including a great explanation about the problem with commissions in the Young Dems questionnaire.

State proposition

  • Prop 1 (Mental health funding): Yes

This prop is annoyingly complicated. It comes in two parts:

  1. A $6B bond for mental health treatment facilities (details TBD) and housing (namely Homekey, the project to turn hotels into housing).
  2. Changes to the funding formulas for existing county-administered mental health services (modifying the Mental Health Services Act, a 2004 ballot prop).

Neither part is simple, and neither part is great. The bond is funding two different, if related things, so if you want to fund mental health treatment but think Homekey has too many problems, too bad. (Also, why is a state that spent $231B last year bothering with a bond for $6B?) Meanwhile the funding changes are complicated and specific; how should I know if 30% is the right fraction to spend on housing people with severe mental illness? What if that changes? (And, as the LA Times points out, it may vary from county to county.) Meanwhile some service providers are worried their funding will be cut, which the Chron says they can make up from other sources but again what do I know. And there was a last-minute amendment to allow funding involuntary treatment, which maybe we don’t like? (Or maybe that’s fine. It’s a complicated issue but I doubt the right amount of involuntary treatment is zero?)

But at the end of the day, we like mental health treatment, it seems like the changes are probably net good, it has to be on the ballot, and voting no doesn’t get us a better prop.

SF propositions

  • Prop A (Affordable housing bonds): Yes

To quote from the voter guide:

State law requires San Francisco to build or allow to be built 46,598 very low- to moderate-income housing units by 2031, or face penalties. The state’s financial contribution is not enough to meet this requirement, so the City must create its own funding.

If anything, this should probably be much larger; $300M isn’t that much. (Again a bond that’s small compared to the yearly budget!) But it’s better than nothing.

  • Prop B (Police staffing, take 2): No

You might remember voting on police staffing in November 2020, when we voted to remove the minimum staffing levels enshrined in the city charter. Now some of the supervisors want to bring them back (and increase the numbers), but only if a tax to fund it is later approved. If that doesn’t make sense, well, yes, it doesn’t make sense. You can stop reading now if you want; the following discussion will not enlighten you.

Should you want to know more, a few questions you might ask:

  • Why are some of the supposedly-progressive supervisors supporting a purported police staffing increase that the mayor, some of the more pro-police supervisors, and also some of the progressive supervisors, all oppose?
  • If they did so to torpedo the measure, why didn’t they just vote it down?
  • In 2020, Peskin, Safaí, and Walton all supported removing the minimum (and Stefani voted to put it on the ballot but I can’t find confirmation she endorsed it); why do they want it (sorta) back now?
  • Whether or not you want more police, why do we need police staffing levels in the charter at all in any form?
  • If the issue is the lack of funding, why not put this on the same ballot as the tax, even if legally there is reason to make them separate propositions?
  • Are any details of the future tax proposition even decided? Are they even hypothesized?
  • Why are the SF Dems and a bunch of non-cop unions (SEIU 1021, IFPTE 21) supporting it? (“It’s better than Dorsey’s version” isn’t a reason.)

I have not found answers to any of these questions beyond, perhaps, “politics” (please let me know if you find any). Dorsey’s answer in the SF guide suggests that the measure was co-opted to weaken it. The official submission of the proponent’s argument seems to suggest Stefani, Melgar, and Walton were originally going to endorse it and then pulled back? (All three voted to put it on the ballot, along with Chan, Peskin, and Safaí.) Somehow I think the answers may have more to do with who wants to run for mayor than what’s a good idea for the city.

Anyway, this is all stupid. I honestly don’t know if SF should have more police (or, more importantly, if having more will cause them to do their jobs), but in any case we should not have the number set by the city charter. In 2020 I said, “Please make sure I never have to think about the number 1,971 again”. I don’t want to have to think about 2,074 any more than 1,971.

  • Prop C (Transfer tax break): Yes

Our quadriennial tradition, modifying the real estate transfer tax! (See also: 2016, 2020.) This one has three parts:

  1. The transfer tax is waived for commercial-to-residential conversions (up to some limit) through 2029. (Note that affordable housing is already exempt, and the tax is progressive1 with most of it falling on transfers of over $5M.)
  2. The transfer tax may be further reduced/repealed (but not increased) by the Board of Supervisors.
  3. Commercial-to-residential conversions may also increase the office space construction quota.

On the whole I think these are all kinda small potatoes, but they’re kind of complicated so let’s take them one at a time.

First, the tax break seems fine. Given the lower demand for office space, commercial-to-residential conversions seem good. The tax break is temporary, and is estimated to cost at most2 $150M in total, which is not huge (compared to a $14B annual budget).3 It’s not clear to me that the transfer tax is what’s blocking such conversions, but given the fact that it’s a fairly small carve-out in an already-complicated tax, sure, why not.

Second, letting the Supervisors reduce/repeal the tax seems mixed. On the one hand, it would be nice if things like this didn’t have to go on the ballot. On the other hand, letting them lower the tax but not raise it seems a bit Grover Norquist for my taste. On the other other hand, the current progressive-majority Board seems unlikely to do so, and even a less-progressive Board won’t be excited to give large real estate a tax break just to have less money to play with in the budget. On the other other other hand, they might still be excited to give some crony a tax break for no good reason. Anyway, I think I lean against this part but it doesn’t seem like a huge deal.

Third, the office space quota is kinda stupid, and allowing office space converted to housing to count negative seems fine. This potentially does have an impact, since we are at quota. The impact is probably a while from now if at all.4

Anyway, I think “sure why not” plus “eh not ideal” plus “sure why not” adds up to “sure why not”? And SPUR endorses it, which is usually a good sign, while I don’t find the arguments against to be particularly thoughtful. But more than anything I’m unconvinced that anyone should care as much as a lot of people seem to. (Indeed, it’s getting a lot less spending than A, B, E, or F.) Really I’d like to see a prop to actually simplify and improve some of these weird taxes and rules instead of tweaking them every 4 years, but that’s not on the ballot, so, sure why not.

  • Prop D (Ethics): Yes

I love an ethics! And San Francisco sure does need an ethics. This prop came out of an Ethics Commission review of the various city corruption cases. It seems like plausible improvements — I’m not sure they’ll solve all our problems but they seem like they might help a little — and everyone seems to support it.

  • Prop E (Police procedures): No

This proposition makes — per the Ballot Simplification Committee — nine distinct changes to police policies and how they are enacted. Those who recall last cycle’s online gambling and dialysis props will know it could be worse, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. In fact, it’s a very bad idea on the whole; the worst part is that police can use any surveillance technology for up to a year without so much as a use policy, but there’s more nonsense beyond that. Let’s dig in.

The specific policy changes seem mixed-to-bad. In general I think smart use of technology can actually help with fair policing (more automated traffic enforcement please!), but the specific changes in this measure are not great. Plus, many are hard to evaluate without having more expertise than I (or for that matter probably anyone else writing a voter guide with the possible exception of the ACLU):

  • Reducing paperwork is probably a good goal in principle although the devil is in the details. (One person’s paperwork is another’s transparency.)
  • The specific use-of-force reporting changes seem okay on the face but I’m not sure if “reported by body-worn cameras” means “reported, just with less paperwork” or “not reported but in theory the evidence is somewhere if we get sued”.
  • Vehicle pursuits for any felony (or anyone “likely to commit” a felony!) are a bad idea. While shoplifting $1000 of merchandise is bad there’s a lot more we could do to stop it that doesn’t risk the safety of passers-by (a very real possibility 38% probability). Even the police seem to think current policy is fine.
  • Police use of drones is complex; for vehicle pursuits they seem plausibly less bad than alternatives (see previous point) but any “active criminal investigation” is a pretty wide range.
  • Surveillance cameras (in public places) are probably not a big deal (plenty of businesses have cameras anyway, and the restrictions on the use of images are only slightly weakened). To the extent they’re a deterrent that doesn’t require a cop on the street, great.
  • Facial recognition seems bad; empirically it doesn’t seem to work well enough yet (who knows if that will change) and provides a fundamentally different level of police surveillance than possible before (unlike cameras, where one could imagine alternatively posting an officer).

The procedural changes are just bad:

  • I’m a known commission-hater but the Police Commission is one of the few that I feel makes sense given the unique role of police in a free society. Whether or not you agree, asking them to jump through a bunch of hoops to change policy seems bad. (Get rid of them or don’t, but more hoops just means more people to blame who can’t actually do anything. Remember: if something is wrong, we blame the mayor!)
  • Allowing new surveillance technology for up to a year without approval (or even, as far as I can tell, a use policy!) is just stupid; insert your favorite joke about testing in production here.
  • Requiring changes to the above to be approved by a supermajority of the Board of Supervisors is stupid; requiring it only for 3 years adds insult to injury. (And by the way, this also means the Police Commission, even via the 90-day feedback dance, can’t modify these policies either.)

I started out reading about this prop thinking it might be some good but mostly bad, and that I’d vote against it but understand why people liked it. But having read more, I think this is a stupid prop that’s hiding a bunch of stupid ideas behind a wall of text that no one can be bothered to read. Don’t fall for it.

  • Prop F (Welfare drug testing): No

The ’90s called, they want their hot-button issue back!

Ok, more seriously, this isn’t actually quite so terrible; basically:

  • if the city suspects that a recipient of public assistance is dependent on illegal drugs,
  • they can mandate a professional evaluation and refer the recipient to treatment;
  • if the treatment program is free, then they can require it to maintain benefits (housing benefits will persist for 30-60 days thereafter).

I’m skeptical of requiring drug testing for public assistance: the burden of another hoop to jump through is real, and the benefit of mandatory treatment unclear. But insofar as one can do that reasonably, this seems to be done reasonably. (Which is genuinely far better than the alternative!) The other problem is that there’s no reason for this to be a proposition, other than that the mayor couldn’t get 6 supervisors to vote for it. I don’t think that’s a good enough reason, so in total I feel good about voting no.

  • Prop G (Algebra resolution): No

Finally, a simple proposition! But not in a good way.

I want to be clear about two things:

  • I support teaching algebra in eighth grade (or for that matter earlier when appropriate). I believe people who have advocated against it on equity grounds are wrong even by their own terms: well-resourced students will learn algebra in middle school regardless of what the school district does; we should make that opportunity available to less-resourced students. I could go on.
  • This proposition does literally nothing.

I will not vote for a proposition which does literally nothing. If the Board of Supervisors wish to endorse eighth grade algebra, they can pass a resolution. If they wish to conduct a poll, they can conduct a poll. I’m sure this issue will be discussed at length in November’s school board election, whether or not the school board has already changed policy by then. But there is no good reason for the Board to waste our time putting propositions on the ballot that do nothing, and there is no good reason for us to vote for them to encourage the practice.

Or, I mean, do whatever you want, it literally doesn’t matter.

  1. As the SF YIMBY voter guide points out, it’s a badly structured tax where the rates are not marginal, so there are cliffs at various numbers. Anyway, changing that isn’t on the ballot. 

  2. The official statement is $34-150M if all of the allowed transfers get used (depending on the size of transfers, since the tax is progressive); of course it’s not guaranteed that they would, and if the space would have been vacant this could increase property tax revenue. Who knows. 

  3. The controller’s statement is a little confusing here: it talks about a 30-year timeframe but most of the cost is really over the ~6 years the tax break would be active. (Perhaps not entirely, because the tax sometimes applies to leases? Or perhaps that’s just how they always analyze everything. I’m unsure and haven’t found further detail.) Anyway, even amortized over only 6 years that’s a bit less than 0.2% of the city budget. 

  4. If office demand stays high, we’ll see few conversions and stay at quota, but if office demand is low we won’t be at quota for a while, so we’ll build up a buffer over time and maybe build more offices in 5 years. But sure, why not.