What’s on my ballot: November 2020 general election

01 Nov 2020

Here’s how I’m voting in the November 2020 general election in San Francisco:


President & Vice President

➡️ Joseph R. Biden, Kamala D. Harris

You already know why.

US Representative, District 12

➡️ Nancy Pelosi

Pelosi has a lot of clout in Congress. It would be against our interests to vote her out.

California State Legislature

State Senator, District 11

➡️ Scott Wiener

Wiener is a high-profile housing advocate and housing is California’s top issue in my opinion.

State Assembly, District 17

➡️ David Chiu

The other candidate, who I won’t link here, is an extreme libertarian. Among other things, the candidate’s platform includes the belief that “secession is a civil right.”

San Francisco City & County

Member, Board of Education

➡️ Kevine Bogess
➡️ Alida Fisher
➡️ Jenny Lam
➡️ Michelle Parker

I’ll defer to the San Francisco Chronicle’s endorsements on this one. Apart from the anti-vaxxer, it’s difficult to distinguish the candidates in this race.

Member, Community College Board

➡️ Shanell Williams
➡️ Tom Temprano
➡️ Jeanette Quick
➡️ Marie Hurabiell

I’m deferring again to the San Francisco Chronicle’s endorsements. They’ve picked candidates with a good mix of backgrounds: incumbents who have experience with the school board (Williams, Temprano), a recent CCSF student (Quick), and a finance-focused lawyer (Hurabiell).

BART Director, District 9

➡️ Patrick Mortiere

Bevan Dufty is the incumbent and has the most experience, but hasn’t provided any platform or proposed policies. He spent half of his candidate statement telling a nice story about that time he personally cleaned a BART station. I do not consider candidates unless they share meaningful information.

Similarly, Michael Petrelis (no website) has only provided vague policy proposals. To use COVID-19 as an example, the candidate’s statement says simply: “Enhancing Covid-19 [sic] protections for all workers and riders.”

The remaining candidates are Patrick Mortiere and David Wei Wen Young. Their platforms are fairly similar. Mortiere wants more bike-friendly stations and an expansion of discounted fares for low-income customers. Young plans to keep drug abusers out of BART with new fare gates, which I don’t think will really solve the problem, and promises not to accept campaign contributions from BART vendors and unions. Both candidates mention the need to cut spending to make up for ridership decline, but neither offers the specifics of which items they would cut.

State ballot measures

Navigating California’s ballot proposition system

California’s ballot proposition system requires voter approval for certain kinds of bills, including issuing bonds, amending the state constitution, and amending previously passed propositions. Voters can also introduce new laws and veto laws already passed by the legislature.

There is a problem with direct democracy: people typically aren’t as informed as their representatives. Suppose there is a measure to issue $5 billion in bonds. How do I know that’s the right amount? Why is it not $5.1 or $4.9 billion? Because few voters are public policy experts, the proposition section of the ballot has become a prime target of astroturfing campaigns and populist policies.

Because of its tendency to produce bad ideas and make them hard to undo, my heuristic is to vote “no” by default, especially when the proposition in question seems complicated or has received funding from interest groups. I’ll also watch out for propositions that could be passed as normal legislation and hold them to a higher standard. They tend to be put on the ballot by special interests or astroturf campaigns trying to trick voters into passing favorable regulation.

These resources can help too:

14: Stem Cell Research Bonds


Basic research, including stem-cell research, should be funded by the federal government. I would prefer for a federal agency to fund projects on a more granular basis, rather than as a huge lump sum by committed up front by voters.

15: Assess Commercial Property Tax with Current Value


California’s Proposition 13 is one of the worst tax policies in history. It effectively locks in the property tax rate based on the sale price, not the fair market value of the property. This simple rule causes a variety of poor second-order effects in the residential market, including:

Proposition 15 would phase out this policy for commercial properties worth more than $3 million, starting in 2022. It’s an important first step in reversing the harms done by Proposition 13.

16: Diversity as a Factor in Public Employment, Education, Contracting


In 1996, Proposition 209 banned affirmative action in public employment, contracting, and education by constitutional amendment. This proposition would allow public entities in the state to use affirmative action, while not mandating that they do so.

To me, this seems like an appropriate cleanup of legislation that should not have been created through propositions.

17: Restore Right to Vote after Completion of Prison Term


Currently, they must finish parole to be allowed to vote again. I’m in favor of anything that expands the right to vote.

18: Permit 17-Year-Olds to Vote in Primary


This proposition would allow underage voters to vote in a primary or special election if they would turn 18 by the date of the following general election. It seems like an easy way to increase young voters’ engagement.

19: Expand Elderly Property Tax Transfer and Reduce Property Tax Inheritance Loopholes


This proposition allows homeowners who are over 55, disabled, or disaster victims to transfer their low property tax base (from Proposition 13) to their new primary residence without restrictions. (They must currently move within the same county and to a home with lower value.) They would be able to transfer their low property taxes three times instead of just once. This may reduce the cost of moving away from a high-demand area after retirement, freeing up housing supply, and provides a path for wildfire victims to move to a more defensible location.

Parents can pass their low Prop 13 tax rates to their children through inheritance. In exchange for giving the elderly an additional tax break, this proposition would limit such inheritance to the primary residence.

On balance, it seems like we’re not getting enough reform in exchange for increased tax breaks for older homeowners who don’t need it. Presumably, if they really wanted to move to a cheaper area, they could use the appreciation of their current home’s value to pay for the increased property taxes.

I also don’t like that this proposition is funded by realtors, who have spent over $40 million in cash contributions to “Yes on 19” committees. Realtors are already doing pretty well on the regulatory capture front.

20: Restrict Parole for Certain Non-Violent Offenses


This proposition would limit parole for some non-violent offenses, such as shoplifting. It would also allow some misdemeanors to receive felony sentences. In addition, it disallows early release for child sex trafficking and felony domestic violence.

Passing this proposition would reverse recent progress toward reducing the prison population, which doesn’t make sense for minor offenses yet is very expensive for taxpayers. Disallowing early release for certain crimes can be implemented through the normal legislative process.

The donors in favor, according to Ballotpedia, are mostly police officers’ associations, plus a $300,000 contribution from Devin Nunes.

21: Expand Rent Control


The Costa–Hawkins Housing Act limited the ways cities can enact rent control. This proposition would amend it in the following ways:

Rent control raises housing prices in the long run by reducing new housing construction and discouraging renters from moving. In addition, there is no reason this needs to be a proposition, which makes it difficult to undo in case of unintended consequences in the future. Costa–Hawkins could be amended or repealed by the legislature instead.

22: Exempt App-based Transportation from Employee Benefits


AB 5 classified many independent contractors as employees. The state later issued hundreds of exemptions, which means AB 5 basically only applies to gig economy apps. Now Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash are funding a proposition to exempt themselves too.

In exchange, drivers would receive a wage floor set at 1.2 times the minimum wage, compensation for work-related injuries, and health insurance contributions.

The proposition could be amended by seven-eights of the legislature, rather than requiring another proposition. This is somewhat meaningless as the threshold is set so high that is is unlikely to be reached.

In my opinion, Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash employ a spectrum of drivers. Some are more employee-like while others are more contractor-like. I disagree with AB 5’s classification of all drivers as employees.

But I also don’t think a ballot proposition is the right way to address this issue. The regulation needs to change as we learn more about the economics of these operations. For example, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi claimed that prices in San Francisco would rise by 20 percent if California drivers were employees. I’d like to run the experiment and see some evidence before making permanent changes.

Finally, Proposition 22 also acts as a referendum on whether $200 million in campaign contributions can allow an industry to write its own regulations in California. This is an absurd amount of money. To put it into perspective, every second YouTube ad in the past couple months has been paid for by the Uber–Lyft–DoorDash interest group. I don’t want to reward this type of behavior.

23: Requirements for Dialysis Clinics


This is a rerun of 2018 Proposition 8. It is also the result of a dialysis clinic labor dispute. While it sucks to be on the same side as DaVita, the question of dialysis clinic regulation should be resolved through the normal legislative process.

24: Amend Consumer Privacy Laws


This proposition would expand the GDPR-like California Consumer Privacy Act that passed in 2018. It’s not clear to me why this needs to be a ballot proposition. As I mentioned in the section about Proposition 22, I believe privacy regulation needs to change as we learn more about the effects of Internet services.

25: Referendum on Replacing Cash Bail with Risk Assessment Procedure


The current cash bail system keeps defendants in jail if they are accused, but not convicted, of a crime and can’t come up with enough money. Being stuck in jail can cause further financial stress, such as losing one’s job, if ultimately proven innocent. It is a regressive tax.

SB 10 ended cash bail and replaced it with a system of risk assessments to decide whether a defendant should be released. Risk is assessed based many factors, including whether the crime is violent and whether the defendant has a history of violence.

This proposition is a referendum on SB 10. A “yes” vote puts the (already passed) law into effect, while a “no” vote repeals the law. It was placed onto the ballot by interest groups representing the commercial bail bond industry.

San Francisco ballot measures

A: Health and Recovery Bonds


Allows the city to issue $488 million in bonds to pay for parks, housing/drug services, and infrastructure. The bonds would be repaid by increasing property taxes.

B: Create Department of Sanitation and Streets


This proposition would split operations and cleaning responsibilities into the Department of Sanitation and Streets, while the design and construction responsibilities remain with the Department of Public Works. It also creates two five-member oversight commissions, one for each department. Members would be appointed by the Board of Supervisors.

It’s not clear to me that this reorganization would fix San Francisco’s sanitation problems. For example, the argument in favor says that this will allow “data-driven cleaning.” But they haven’t shown why that practice is impossible to implement under the current organizational structure.

C: Remove Citizenship Requirement for Members of City Bodies


Currently, one must be a registered voter and US citizen to serve on city boards and commissions. This proposition would remove that requirement.

San Francisco has a lot of immigrants and it’s a long, difficult process to receive US citizenship. There could exist many non-citizens who have great ideas on how to run our city.

D: Create Sheriff Inspector General and Oversight Board


I’m deferring to SPUR’s analysis because I don’t know much about how we handle police misconduct currently.

This detail stuck out to me:

In May of 2019, the Sheriff’s Department entered into an agreement with the Department of Police Accountability (DPA) to investigate several existing high-profile allegations of misconduct


In August of 2020, the relationship between DPA and Sheriff’s Department was modified in an effort to strengthen the provision of oversight. A key addition to the agreement includes the ability for incarcerated people and the public to file complaints directly with DPA, as opposed to the sheriff assigning cases to DPA.

It seems better to codify the agreement between the Sheriff and DPA into law.

E: Remove Police Department Minimum Staffing Requirement


The City Charter requires San Francisco to maintain at least 1,971 police officers. This proposition would remove the requirement.

Regardless of your opinions on policing, having a fixed headcount number is a nonsensical way to make staffing decisions.

F: Various Business Tax Changes


Among other things, this proposition primarily eliminates the payroll expense tax in exchange for increasing the gross receipts tax. The city would make an additional $97 million per year.

According to SPUR and the San Francisco Chronicle, this is a surprisingly good tax reform since the payroll tax can discourage hiring, while the gross receipts tax is progressive to reduce the burden on small businesses. It’s part of a long-term shift away from payroll taxes.

G: Permit 16-Year-Olds to Vote on Local Issues


I am generally in favor of expanding voting. This seems like an easy way to increase engagement among young people.

H: Expedite Planning Process in Commercial Districts


San Francisco’s approval process is disgustingly bad. It makes sense to expedite this process and remove the notification requirement for some uses, reducing the barrier to entry for new businesses.

I: Real Estate Transfer Tax Increase


The city levies a transfer tax on real estate sales. This proposition would increase the tax on property valued at $10+ million from approximately 3 percent to approximately 6 percent. According to SPUR, the transfer tax is highly volatile income source because it depends on both property value and transaction volume. And San Francisco already has a high transfer tax rate.

Some proceeds would be spent on compensating landlords whose tenants didn’t pay rent due to COVID-19 hardships. In my opinion, this spending is dubious at best. Being a professional landlord is a speculative business: those who can’t weather a market downturn shouldn’t get into it.

J: School District Parcel Tax


In 2018, voters passed a tax of $320 per parcel to fund the school district. The measure was challenged in court over the required voter threshold to pass, and until that dispute is resolved, the school district might not be allowed to spend the money raised by the tax.

This proposition reduces the tax to $288 per parcel. It also requires a two-thirds majority to pass, which would avoid the issue with the 2018 tax.

K: Authorize City-developed Affordable Housing


Article 34 of California’s Constitution requires cities to receive voter approval before constructing low-income housing projects or paying private organizations to do so. This proposition authorizes San Francisco to construct up to 10,000 units under Article 34.

L: Tax Companies with Large Executive Pay Disparity


This proposition increases the payroll and gross receipts tax rate of companies whose ratio of executive to worker pay for workers in San Francisco exceeds 100 to 1. The Controller notes that this would increase tax revenues by $60 to $140 million. SPUR notes that the increase is small enough not to affect the decision to do business in San Francisco and that companies may find other ways to compensate executives.

I am voting no because it seems to be difficult to enforce, while not bringing in much tax revenue or offering much of an incentive for more equal pay.

District ballot measures

RR: Caltrain Sales Tax


The US-101 corridor is the most economically productive road in the United States. Caltrain is essential for moving workers between San Francisco and Santa Clara counties, which will keep the region productive after the pandemic. Caltrain currently faces a large budget shortfall from a decline in ridership.

This proposition would increase sales tax by 0.125 percentage points to fund Caltrain’s operations and upcoming electrification.