SF Politics 101 > San Francisco Elections
SF Politics 101 > San Francisco Elections
SAN FRANCISCO ELECTIONS
When are the upcoming elections? | Qualifying for the Ballot | What is the legislative referral process? | What is the initiative process? | How does a candidate qualify for the ballot? | Post-Election | Is there a legal way to challenge the results of the election? | Special Elections | Campaign Finance
In this section, we dive into the electoral process in San Francisco – from how many signatures it takes to put an initiative on the ballot, to what triggers a special election.
Given what we know of your professional need for information about San Francisco’s electoral and legislative processes, we have chosen to provide you with a high-level summary. (Should you desire further information about these laws, and details surrounding this subject matter, you can find the entire set of guiding rules and principles in the City Charter and Administrative Code, Board of Supervisors Rules of Order, the Board’s Legislative Process Handbook, and the Department of Elections Guide to Qualifying San Francisco Initiative Measures.)
In order to be placed before San Francisco voters, ballot measures can take a variety of paths towards confirmation, including the charter amendment system, the legislative referral process (backed by the Mayor or four or more Supervisors), and the signature-powered initiative process.
How does a charter amendment make it to the ballot?
Any proposal to make an amendment to the City Charter must be submitted to the electors by the Board.
What is the first step?
The proposed charter amendment must be introduced to the Board of Supervisors at a regular Board meeting no less than 168 days prior to the election, where it will then be referred to the appropriate legislative committee for public hearing. However, before the proposed charter amendment can be heard at committee, the City Attorney must sign it and provide a legislative digest before the 30-day rule commences.
What happens after reference to committee?
After its reference to committee, the proposed charter amendment is filtered through various offices in City Hall, including:
- City Attorney: If the amendment has not been approved to form yet, the Clerk of the Board transmits the amendment to the City Attorney for preparation or approval as to form. Within ten days after receipt from the Clerk of the Board, the City Attorney must prepare or approve as to form, or provide a negative report in lieu thereof.
- Controller: After its reference to committee and approved as to form, the Clerk of the Board refers such proposed amendment to the Controller. The Controller has ten days to submit to the Board a written statement pursuant to the Charter, analyzing the proposal as to its cost.
- Mayor and Other City Officials: After its reference to committee and approval as to form, the Clerk of the Board refers such proposed amendment to the Mayor, appropriate department heads, and appropriate boards and commissions for comment as to the effect upon any matters within their respective jurisdictions.
How are amendments made to proposed charter amendments?
Amendments of substance that are submitted to the entire Board, or a Board committee, shall be prepared or approved as to form, and returned to the Clerk of the Board by the City Attorney within seven days after receipt. Thereupon, the Clerk of the Board sends the updated charter amendment to the Controller, the Mayor, appropriate department heads and appropriate boards and commissions for comment.
From there, at least ten days must pass from when the Mayor and other City officials received the amendments before the committee can send the Board their report, and the Board can take action.2
When can the proposed charter amendment be submitted to voters?
At least six days must pass between the first appearance of a proposed charter amendment on the Board agenda, and any Board decision to submit to the electorate. This order must be made not less than 95 days prior to the election.
What if the deadline to submit is missed?
Under the San Francisco Elections Code Section 300, proposed charter amendments which the Board wishes to submit to voters may be submitted for the next elections held no fewer than 102 days after the date of submission. The director of elections is also allowed to accept from the Board one proposed charter amendment a week later, but no fewer than 95 days before the date of an election.
On the 94th day prior to each City election, the Clerk of the Board shall file all pending proposed charter amendments that have not been submitted to the voters by the Board for that election, unless a Supervisor has requested, in writing, that a measure be considered for submission to the voters at a subsequent election.3
By putting their support behind a certain measure, San Francisco politicians may submit to the voters declarations of policy, and any matter which the Board of Supervisors or Mayor is empowered to pass. The legislative referral process allows politicians to push an ordinance or declaration of policy they care deeply about – or which they believe will have a significant impact on the City (such as a tax) – that otherwise could not be put into law through the normal legislative process, to the ballot box.
This process also allows proponents of the policy proposal to skip the hassle of gathering enough signatures to qualify the measure necessary under the initiative process.
What does the legislative referral process look like?
First, the proposed measure must gain the support of the Mayor or at least four members of the Board of Supervisors before it can be submitted to the Department of Elections, no later than 45 days prior to the submission deadline.
Once the measure is proposed, the Clerk of the Board sends it to the Controller for a financial analysis, which must be completed no later than the first committee hearing concerning the proposed ordinance or charter amendment.
At least 15 days prior to the submission deadline, the President of the Board of assigns the measure to committee, which conducts a public hearing on the matter.
What if the deadline to hold a public hearing is not met?
If the Board of Supervisors fails to hold a hearing on the measure before the deadline for submittal, the initiative is placed on the ballot by the Director of Elections, with the caveat to add a notice to the Voter Information Pamphlet stipulating that the measure did not have its required public hearing.4
When can the proposed ordinance or declaration of policy be submitted to voters?
The measure shall be submitted to the voters at the next election held no fewer than 95 days after the date said measure is transmitted to the Director of Elections.5
Grassroots methods require proponents of a measure to gain the support of their fellow San Francisco residents by collecting the required number of signatures. The number of signatures to qualify an initiative measure for the ballot varies depending upon the type of measure, whether it is submitted to voters at a regular or special election, and the total number of voters in the previous election.
- Number of Signatures: Equal to or exceed 10 percent of the total number of voters in the Department’s most recent official report of registration to the Secretary of State.
Ordinance or Declaration of Policy
- Number of Signatures: Equal to or exceed 5 percent of the votes cast for all candidates for Mayor at the most recent municipal election for Mayor.
- Number of Signatures: Equal to or exceed 10 percent of the votes cast for all candidates for Mayor at the most recent municipal election for Mayor.
How much time is given to collect signatures?
Once the City Attorney determines the measure’s ballot title and summary, the proponents have a maximum of 180 days to obtain all required signatures, and file their petition with the Department of Elections. In order to qualify the measure for a specific election, a petition must be filed with the Department of Elections no later than 120 days prior to that election. If the measure gathers enough signatures within the 180-day period, but less than 120 days prior to an election, the measure will be submitted to the voters at a future election.
What is a valid signature?
Anyone over the age of 18 who is registered to vote in the City and County of San Francisco can sign the petition. To ensure the validity of the collected signatures, the Department of Elections will test a random sample of 500. The random sample test attempts to show that the number of valid signatures is greater than 110 percent of the required number necessary to qualify the measure. If this proves not to be the case, the Department of Elections will verify each signature on the petition.6
Does the initiative process require City review?
No later than two working days after the initiative petition is certified, the Director of Elections, in consultation with the City Attorney, shall forward the initiative measure to the City departments which the Director of Elections believes are the most appropriate for determining the effect of the measure on current law and practices. Those departments shall transmit an analysis of the measure to the Ballot Simplification Committee no later than three days prior to the first date the committee meets to prepare a digest of the measure.7
Qualifying for the ballot as a candidate is fairly simple. Each candidate for local elected office must be a resident and registered voter in San Francisco when they submit their nomination documents. When running for Supervisor, the candidate must reside in the respective district for at least 30 days before filing their candidacy, and must continue to reside therein during their incumbency. By law, candidates must also fulfill each of the following requirements:
- Complete the initial filing requirement: Must file a Declaration of Intention to Solicit and Accept Contributions and Declaration of Candidacy.
- A member of a City Board, Commission, or other body established by the San Francisco Charter, who decides to file a Declaration of Candidacy may be required to forfeit their seat.
- Pay filing fee or signatures-in-lieu of filing fee: Candidates must pay a non-refundable filing fee when filing their nomination documents. To reduce the cost of the filing fee, or bring it down to zero, candidates can collect valid signatures of registered San Francisco voters.
- Each valid signature reduces the filing fee by $0.50.
- To reduce the filing fee to zero, candidates for the Board of Supervisors must collect 1,000 valid signatures from registered voters within the supervisorial district in which they are running. (13,438 signatures are required to bring the filing fee down to zero for Mayoral candidates).
- Submit the nomination paper: All candidates must submit a nomination paper with at least 20 and no more than 30 valid nomination signatures.
- Face public examinations and challenges: During a ten-day period, all election materials submitted by a candidate can be challenged to be inconsistent with election law requirements.
The relatively low barrier to entry when it comes to running for public office in San Francisco leads to a greater diversity of backgrounds and voices in election races across the city.
Assessor-Recorder and Superior Court
Important Dates for the November 2022 Election9
Three members of the Board of Education, three members of the City College Board of Trustees, Assessor-Recorder, and Public Defender
Even-numbered Supervisorial districts 2, 4, 6, 8, and 10
When do San Franciscans vote for elected officials?
Voters select candidates to fill elected City Hall offices in the general election, and in some cases, special elections. The general election does not include a wholesale change of officials. Instead, elected positions are staggered over the years. Below is a list of the elected offices in San Francisco and the dates they are scheduled to again appear on the ballot.10
Do elected officials have term limits?
In San Francisco, each elected government official serves a four-year term before going up for re-election. All positions, except for the Mayor and Board of Supervisors, have no term limits.
The Mayor and Members of the Board of Supervisors can serve two consecutive four-year terms. A term that exceeds two years shall count as a full term. After the second consecutive term, a break of at least one term must be taken by the individual before they can run for the same position again, at which point they are eligible to serve another two consecutive four-year terms. There is no limit on the number of non-successive terms any person can serve.
Recent examples to the rules above include Supervisor Aaron Peskin who served two terms from 2001-2009 and was then reelected in 2015, as well as Mayor London Breed who, if elected in 2019 and 2023, can serve two terms (2020-2028) as Mayor because her current assignment did not exceed two years.11
How does a Ballot Measure Become Law?
A simple majority (50 percent +1) is required to adopt a charter amendment, ordinance, or declaration of policy. After the election, measures are put into effect rather quickly. Ordinances or declarations of policy go into effect ten days after the Board of Supervisors confirms the election results. A charter amendment goes into effect as soon as it is filed by the California Secretary of State.
A simple majority is applied except in the case of taxes… in some cases.
In California, if a local tax measure raises revenue for the General Fund, the proposed measure only needs to receive a simple majority. However, if it is a special tax measure intended to fund a specific purpose, voters must pass the measure with a two-thirds supermajority.
Did you know?
Prior to the passage of Prop 13 in 1978 – yes, that Prop 13 – localities were allowed to raise or lower taxes without voter approval. In addition to changing how taxes and tax cuts were approved, Prop 13 included a requirement that special taxes needed a two-thirds majority to pass. Over the years, many propositions were passed to close the perceived court-made “loopholes” employed by localities to raise more taxes. Prop 218 is likely the most notable example as it expressively reiterated (through the addition of Articles XIII C and XIII D of the California Constitution), the requirement that special local tax measures need a two-thirds supermajority to pass. However, Prop 218 did not give any indication about voter initiatives in the context of voting threshold requirements.
In the 2017 California Cannabis Coal v. City of Upland case, the California Supreme Court decided that local measures introduced by voter initiative could be presented at special elections, and not only in a general election. This new court decision continued the much larger debate – one that’s been going on for at least 40 years – around what the voting threshold for special taxes introduced by voter initiative should be.12
This brings us to the next step in the saga when in 2018 three San Francisco special tax measures introduced by the initiative process, Prop C (June), Prop G, and Prop C (November), passed without a two-thirds supermajority. But eventually, after a couple of years going through the court system and facing a number of appeals, the California Supreme Court upheld both Prop C’s on the grounds that the two-thirds requirement applies only to taxes brought forth by a governing body and not to measures placed on the ballot by private citizens via the initiative process. Prop G, on the other hand, is still tied up in litigation and San Francisco officials instead introduced and passed a very near identical measure in 2020 to bypass the courts.13
What happens when competing measures both pass?
When two or more ballot measures concerning the same subject matter pass at the same election, and there is a conflict between the provisions in these measures, then the provisions of the measure receiving the greatest number of votes goes into effect.14
In 2002, San Francisco became one of the first major American cities to implement ranked-choice voting (RCV). In use at every local election in San Francisco since 2004, ranked-choice voting has become an increasingly popular voting method across the country.
What is ranked-choice voting?
In general, ranked-choice voting allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference, thereby eliminating the need to conduct runoff elections. For ranked-choice contests, all first-choice votes are counted. If a candidate receives a majority (50 percent+1) of first-choice votes, that candidate wins. If no candidate has a majority, the candidate with the fewest first choices is eliminated, and voters who selected that candidate and their second choice are counted. This cycle repeats until there is a majority winner.
In most cases, ranked-choice voting has been found to improve the civility of campaigning as candidates avoid enacting the scorched-earth techniques commonly used in a simple plurality-winner election. Instead, candidates must appeal broadly and ask voters, “If I’m not your first choice, I’d like to be your second choice”, and so on. This voting method has also led to coalition building, especially among candidates facing strong opposition.
What positions are elected by ranked-choice voting?
The Mayor, Sheriff, District Attorney, City Attorney, Treasurer, Assessor-Recorder, Public Defender, and members of the Board of Supervisors are all elected by ranked-choice voting.15
Update to Ranked-Choice
Beginning with the 2019 November elections, San Francisco will use a new voting system that allows voters to rank up to a maximum of ten candidates in a ranked-choice contest, instead of three candidates with the previous system.16
If election results do not go your way, there is still a small sliver of hope. To prevent a passed ballot measure from being implemented, voters must file a petition to the Board of Supervisors. To unseat an elected official, voters must initiate a recall petition. At the local level, these methods have been proven difficult to carry out as they cost a significant amount of capital including funding, manpower, and political clout.
Before an ordinance goes into effect, a referendum may be proposed by filing a petition with the Board of Supervisors protesting the passage of that ordinance. Such a petition must be signed by voters in a number equal to at least 10 percent of the total number of votes cast in the most recent general election for Mayor, in most circumstances. The exception to this rule is if the petition is regarding an ordinance granting any franchise (to construct, install, or operate public facilities), which requires a 5 percent threshold.
If these requirements are met: The ordinance is suspended and will be reconsidered by the Board.
If it is not entirely repealed: The Board of Supervisors shall submit the ordinance to the voters at the next general, municipal or statewide election, or at a special municipal election. The ordinance cannot become effective until approved by voters at such an election.
Voters may initiate a recall petition for an elected official of the City and County, the City Administrator, the Controller, or any member of the Airports Commission the Board of Education, City College Board of Trustees, the Ethics Commission, or the Public Utilities Commission as long as it has been at least six months since the official took office.
Upon certifying the sufficiency of the recall petition’s signatures, the Director of Elections immediately calls a special municipal election on the recall, to be held not less than 105 nor more than 120 days from the date of its calling unless it is within 105 days of a general municipal or statewide election, in which event the recall shall be submitted at such general municipal or statewide election.17
Did you know?
Since 1950 there have been numerous campaigns to recall elected officials. However, the only recall campaign to successfully reach the ballot occurred in 1983 when then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein resoundingly quelled a recall attempt by the White Panther Party.18 In the most recent recall attempt, a 2017 recall campaign to oust Mayor Ed Lee failed to even qualify for the ballot.19
How does SF handle vacancies?
The Mayor appoints a replacement if the office of Assessor-Recorder, City Attorney, District Attorney, Public Defender, Sheriff, Treasurer, or a Member of the Board of Supervisors, Board of Education, or Governing Board of the Community College District becomes vacant because of death, resignation, recall, permanent disability, or the inability of the respective officer to otherwise carry out the responsibilities of the office.
If the Office of the Mayor becomes vacant due to death, resignation, recall, permanent disability or the inability to carry out the responsibilities of the office, the President of the Board of Supervisors becomes Acting Mayor, serving until a successor is appointed by the rest of the Board.
In all cases, the replacement appointee serves until a successor is selected at the next election, occurring not less than 120 days after the vacancy.20
Three Most Recent Mayoral Vacancies
The Office of the Mayor has been vacated seven times in San Francisco’s history, with three such occurrences happening in the last 50 years. The most prolific and tragic of mayoral vacancies happened when Mayor George Moscone was assassinated in 1978, leading to then-President of the Board of Supervisors Dianne Feinstein to become Acting Mayor. Feinstein later won the special election to become Mayor of San Francisco, acting as the first female in that position, a job which she held for ten years before joining the U.S. Senate in 1992. Senator Feinstein, along with Senator Barbara Boxer, became California’s first female senators during what later became known as the Year of the Woman, a landmark year for females elected to the U.S. Senate.
In a more recent era, in 2010, then-Mayor Gavin Newsom successfully ran to become Lieutenant Governor of California and vacated his seat as Mayor of San Francisco. Consensus on who would replace Newsom was hard to reach with the Progressive-leaning Board of Supervisors, with numerous nominations failing to reach the required votes following the election. Ultimately, Newsom delayed his resignation as Mayor to ensure that the incoming more Moderate-leaning members of the Board would participate in the vote. Finally, in the first Board of Supervisors meeting of 2011, then-City Administrator Ed Lee, was voted unanimously by the Board of Supervisors to serve as Mayor. At the time, political tensions were running extremely high as many eager Supervisors and other elected officials eyed the mayoral seat. Subsequently, Lee’s selection as Mayor was seen as a “placeholder” until the next election, where it was agreed that he would step aside for new candidates. After fulfilling the rest of Newsom’s term, Lee changed his mind on his promise not to run for Mayor and ultimately ran and won a full term in the 2011 election.21 Mayor Lee went on to win a second term, dying unexpectedly during his seventh year in office.
Turning to our final recent vacancy, Mayor Lee’s untimely death set into motion another complicated and complex game of political maneuvering when President of the Board of Supervisors, London Breed, became Acting Mayor. However, once again, due to competing political ambitions, the Board of Supervisors soon voted to replace Breed and appoint Supervisor Mark Farrell as Interim Mayor. In exchange for the appointment, Mayor Farrell, a soon-to-be termed-out Supervisor, vowed not to run for Mayor in the upcoming special election. Concerned with incumbency advantages, this was seen as a move to prevent Breed from having the upper hand against any eventual opponents. Nonetheless, in June 2018, President of the Board Supervisors London Breed won election to become the 45th Mayor of San Francisco.
How is the date of a special election determined?
When an elected official vacates office during their term, voters pick who they want to fill the vacancy through a special election. After being elected, the winner of the special election takes on the unexpired term of the previous official before facing re-election in the next general election – in some cases, this can cause candidates to run two campaigns only months apart (which was the case, for example, for District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman in 2018).
Deciding when to hold the special election is not cut and dry, and can involve a high amount of politicking between the Mayor and the Board of Supervisors. According to the law, the date of the special election must not be less than 105 or more than 120 days from the date such election is called; however, no special municipal election can take place within 105 days of any general municipal or statewide election. The Board of Supervisors may choose to consolidate a special municipal election with a general municipal or statewide election.22
In an attempt to level the playing field for candidates from all backgrounds, San Francisco has implemented some of the most stringent campaign finance laws in the country. For this guide we will focus on a few of the most important high-level rules. (For further information about campaign finance law, we recommend the SF Campaign and Government Conduct Code and the California Political Reform Act.)
For this section, the definition for “committee” shall be defined from the California Political Reform Act, California Government Code section 81000, et seq.
“Committee” means any person or combination of persons who directly or indirectly does any of the following:
- Receives contributions totaling one thousand dollars or more in a calendar year.
- Makes independent expenditures totaling one thousand dollars or more in a calendar year.
- Makes contributions totaling ten thousand dollars or more in a calendar year to or at the behest of candidates or committees.
Are there limits to campaign contributions?
When making a contribution in San Francisco to a candidate or campaign treasurer for a candidate committee, an individual’s contribution cannot exceed $500.
Are corporations allowed to make contributions?
Corporations organized, whether for profit or not, can establish, administer, and solicit contributions to a candidate committee as long as it is through a separate segregated fund and complies with state and federal laws.
Can you earmark a donation for a specific campaign use?
No person may make a contribution to a committee on the condition, or with the agreement, that it will be contributed to any particular candidate or committee to circumvent the limits established by subsections.23
Coordinating of Independent Expenditures
How do you ensure that an expenditure is independent?
An expenditure is not considered independent and shall be treated as a contribution from the person making the expenditure to the candidate on whose behalf, or for whose benefit the expenditure is made, if the expenditure funds a communication that expressly advocates the nomination, election, or defeat of a clearly identified candidate and is made under the following circumstances:
- The expenditure is made at the request, suggestion, or direction of, or in cooperation, consultation, concert or coordination with, the candidate on whose behalf, or for whose benefit, the expenditure is made.
- The communication funded by the expenditure is created, produced or disseminated:
- After the candidate has made, or participated in making, any decision regarding the content, timing, location, mode, intended audience, volume of distribution, or frequency of placement of the communication.
- After discussion between the creator, producer or distributor of a communication, or the person paying for that communication, and the candidate or committee regarding the content, timing, location, mode, intended audience, volume of distribution or frequency of placement of that communication, the result of which is agreement on any of these topics.24
1 “Department of Elections.” Future Elections.
2 “City and County of San Francisco Board of Supervisors.” Rules of Order. Section 2, 19 Apr. 2019.
3 “San Francisco Municipal Elections Code.” Article III, Section 300.
4 “San Francisco Charter.” Article II, Section 2.113.
5 “San Francisco Municipal Elections Code.” Article III, Section 300.
6 “San Francisco Elections.” Guide to Qualifying San Francisco Initiative Measures.
7 “San Francisco Municipal Elections Code.” Article VI, Section 600.
8 “San Francisco Elections.” June 7, 2022, Consolidated General Election.
9 “San Francisco Elections.” November 8, 2022, Consolidated General Election.
10 “San Francisco Charter.” Article XIII, Section 13.101.
11 “San Francisco Charter.” Article II, Section 2.101.
12 Nielsen, Richard E., and Robert P. Merten III. “The Sequel to Upland: A California Supermajority Tax Showdown.” Pillsbury Law.
13 Egelko, Bob. “Calif. Supreme Court Lets 2018’s Prop. C Stand, Frees up $492 Million in SF Homeless Funds.” San Francisco Chronicle, 10 Sept. 2020.
14 “San Francisco Elections.” Guide to Qualifying San Francisco Initiative Measures.
15 “San Francisco Elections.” Candidate Guide: City Attorney, District Attorney, Sheriff, Treasurer, Public Defender Board of Education, and Community College Board.
16 “Department of Elections.” Ranked-Choice Voting.
17 “San Francisco Charter.” Article XIV.
18 Turner, Wallace. “Mayor Feinstein, By Wide Margin, Defeats San Francisco Recall Bid.” New York Times, 27 Mar. 1984.
19 “Ed Lee Recall, San Francisco, California (2017).” Ballotpedia.
20 “San Francisco Charter.” Article XIII, Section 13.101.5.
21 “Newsom’s Delayed Departure Brings out Supes’ Worst.” SF Gate, 6 Jan. 2016.
22 “San Francisco Charter.” Article XIII, Section 13.103.
23 “San Francisco Campaign and Governmental Conduct Code.” Article I, Section 1.114.
24 “San Francisco Campaign and Governmental Conduct Code.” Article I, Section 1.115.