Federal election monitors might conjure up visions of the Balkan states or the Jim Crow South, but if they come to San Francisco in November, it will not be the first time, political observers say.
“It’s not like Jimmy Carter going to Africa,” said political consultant Jim Ross, who helped put Mayor Gavin Newsom in office but is not working on this year’s campaigns. “For a contested San Francisco mayor’s race, this is pretty standard.”
In fact, federal, state or independent observers monitor most San Francisco elections, either at polling places on Election Day or during the counting phase, said John Arntz, The City’s director of elections. The monitoring is routine, he added, and shouldn’t reflect badly on The City.
“It’s not uncommon for us to have observers,” Arntz said. “I don’t think San Francisco is known for bad
The current election has featured a series of allegations against supporters of front-runner Mayor Ed Lee, culminating this week with seven of Lee’s rivals writing a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice and California secretary of state requesting election monitors.
Although The City’s district attorney is investigating the claims, Jim Stearns, spokesman for state Sen. Leland Yee, said the candidates had not received a reply from state or federal authorities.
“Radio silence so far,” he said.
Department of Justice spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa said the department would review the request and announce on the Friday before the election whether it would send monitors.
Federal monitors are not unusual, she said, pointing to an announcement last year that 400 federal observers and department personnel would observe elections in 30 jurisdictions in 18 states for the Nov. 2, 2010, general election. Those jurisdictions included Riverside and Alameda counties.
The observers were charged with making sure minority and disabled voters, or voters who did not speak English, were able to cast their ballots.
Nicole Winger, spokeswoman for the secretary of state, said California also sends observers to monitor elections, though it is not common.
“Typically, the local jurisdictions take care of monitoring local elections,” Winger said.
The last time state observers visited San Francisco was 2004, Winger said.
However, Ross worries that calling into question the legitimacy of ballots might sour voters on the election.
“If people start to question, ‘Oh, my ballot’s not going to get counted, this whole thing is rigged,’ you’re going to hurt turnout,” Ross said.
San Francisco has a storied history of electoral irregularities, one that often involves water.
1997: A torrential downpour leaves many ballots soaked, and election officials come up with a novel solution. “In order to get them dry, they were sticking them in the little office microwave at the Department of Elections, and actually cooking the ballots,” said political consultant Jim Ross.
2001: Dozens of red plastic lids from ballot boxes blow into the Bay, washing up on beaches as far away as Point Reyes for months. City workers say no ballots are lost.
2010: Karl Bradfield Nicholas, a 50-year-old poll worker, steals 75 ballots, along with a memory box and the key to a voting machine. The ballots are later found in a lagoon near the Palace of Fine Arts.