The historic importance local elections play as incubators for reform has never been more critical than it is right now. But conducting an election during a pandemic comes with many challenges. 

Voter engagement, for example, requires addressing multiple issues with specific solutions. Information on voter registration, early voting and mail in ballots can be overwhelming, raising concerns for some voters about their vote being counted. 

Rank-Choice-Voting and language barriers also have an impact on voter turnout. San Francisco voters will see 12 California propositions and another 12 local propositions on the 2020 ballot. And studies show that when voters worry that their ballots are too complicated, they tend not to vote at all. 

San Francisco’s outdoor Voting Center outside of Bill Graham Civic Auditorium is now open and ready to serve San Francisco residents. To avoid potential lines, San Francisco’s Department of elections urges residents to vote early. Courtesy: @SFElections

Jason McDaniel, an Associate Professor of Political Science at San Francisco State University, studies local elections. His research shows San Francisco is a high participation city, with 50-80 percent voter participation in midterm and presidential elections. The national average for voter participation is 20-25 percent of registered voters. However, despite the importance of local elections, voter turnout in San Francisco for local elections is lower, at 35-55 percent of registered voters. His research also shows the electorate in San Francisco, and especially around the country, is disproportionately white and older than that of the general population.

“I often talk about [local elections] as being the foundation of democracy, in specific,” said McDaniel. “I think they are an essential pathway to achieving greater equality, especially for underrepresented communities in our country, regionally and locally and around the world of course.” 

Data from 2016 in San Francisco shows that non-Hispanic white voters were a much higher percentage of registered voters compared to the population, while Asian and Latinos were underrepresented. African-Americans were slightly overrepresented as a result of strong efforts to mobilize Black communities and a strong turnout of older Black voters. 

According to the 2016 data, younger registered voters in general are much less likely to turn out for local elections. McDaniel concluded that increasing voting along racial/ethnic, age and education lines is a means to equalize the vote. For McDaniel, the main reason that younger voters and voters in underrepresented groups don’t turn out is a lack of information. This includes local candidates, issues, rules, and regulations, particularly ranked-choice voting.

While older voters tend to turn out, Annie Chung, President and CEO of Self-Help for the Elderly in San Francisco, points to ranked-choice voting as a barrier for seniors and limited English speakers because of high concerns these groups have about making a mistake on their ballots and difficulty understanding complex information about measures and propositions. She encourages anyone needing support to seek the language and voter services available.

Ranked-choice voting, also known as Instant Runoff Voting, was adopted by San Francisco in 2002 to move away from the traditional election system. This system allows voters to rank candidates by preference on their ballots. According to Ballotpedia, if a candidate wins a majority of first-preference votes, they are declared the winner. If no candidate wins a majority of first-preference votes, the candidate with the fewest first-preference votes is eliminated. First-preference votes cast for the eliminated candidate are thrown out, lifting the second-preference choices indicated on those ballots. 

“I think of it as an alternative to ‘plurality election systems,’” McDaniel said. He explains that the idea is to eliminate the requirements for a run off election between the top two candidates, leading to the potential for a slim majority to result in a win, leaving many voters without a voice. Allowing voters to rank multiple candidates in order by preference versus only one vote for one candidate maximizes every vote because if your favorite candidates can’t win, your vote counts for your next choice.

Fortunately, there is a system in place to flag errors and help voters correct mistakes, ensuring every ballot is counted. 

“If a voter makes a mistake, they can get a replacement ballot by mail or in person at the SF Voter Center,” said Eve Peña, Outreach Assistant Manager with the SF Department of Elections. “As long as we can determine voter intent, we can still accept your ballot even if it has an error on it. It is human eyes that will be processing these along with machine tabulation.”

For San Francisco residents, here are things you can do to ensure your vote counts:

  • Plan to send your ballot on time—by mail, via a drop off location or in person at your local voting center.
  • Read the instructions that come with your ballot.
  • Sign your ballot—Correctly. Your ballot signature should match the signature you made when you registered to vote. Tip: The signature on your most recent license or state I.D. is very likely the one you should match.

Each county is slightly different on how they prefer you to address those mistakes. If you have specific questions about your ballot, contact your local Registrar of Voters to get advice and instructions.

Information for San Francisco County voter is available here:

Information about ranked-choice voting in California is available at and for national ranked choice voting information is available at:

Californians with questions or concerns about our elections should contact:

Find your early voting site or ballot drop-off location in California here:

To track your mail in ballot, please visit: and sign up. 

This information was presented by speakers participating in a video conference hosted by Ethnic Media Services Tuesday October 5, 2020. This is part of a series of press briefings on voter access issues in the 2020 elections.