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    Electoral Bang for the Buck: How Much Does a Vote Cost?

    By Louise “Lou” Fischer–

    If electoral politics had a theme song, it would be Abba’s 1976 hit “Money Money Money.” While our Bumbler-in-Chief in the White House is wrong about the media being the “enemy of the people,” to borrow a little on the metaphor, I believe that “money is the enemy of fair elections.”

    In a recent The New York Times/CBS News poll, most Americans, regardless of their political affiliation, agreed that “money has too much influence on politicians and that campaign finance changes are needed.” In the 2018 Federal midterm elections, candidates spent an estimated $5.2 billion, making it the costliest congressional election cycle in U.S. history. We did pick up 40 House seats, but it would be nice if there were a discount rack or a 50%-off sale for some of those Congressional seats.

    There is a wide discrepancy in the amount of money spent in Federal, State and Local elections; and the amount a candidate needs is drastically different, depending on the race. Per-vote-spending, or calculating the cost of every vote (amount spent divided by number of votes received) accomplishes the following: 1) it provides a consistent quotient to compare races, 2) it measures the financial efficiency of a campaign, 3) it gives political geeks something to do to combat post-election withdrawal symptoms, and 4) it plays to the competitive nature of elected officials who need something else to gloat about when just winning their election wasn’t enough.

    Per-vote-spending often reveals a candidate’s campaign strategy: are they spending on TV/internet advertising and mail pieces, or do they rely more on volunteers doing door-to-door canvassing and phone-banking? Campaigns with a bigger voting population, such as State and City-wide elections, are generally more efficient on a cost-per-vote (CPV) basis, while a smaller District Supervisor race has a much higher CPV. 

    So, let’s do some 3rd grade math with data from the Fair Political Practices Commission (available at https://sfethics.org/) and see how the recent San Francisco District Supervisor races played out and who gets bragging rights. A few ground rules: 1) the calculations are on money raised by the campaign; no 3rd party “Independent Expenditure” contributions, which are clubs, organizations, unions or Rich Uncle Pennybags (Monopoly Man) type of folks, all of whom are prohibited from coordinating with campaigns; and 2) these are ranked-choice elections, but I’m only using the 1st choice votes because 2nd and 3rd choices are consolation prizes—it’s the girl or guy you took to the prom because your first choice said no; you had a good time, you liked your date, but you really wanted to go with someone else.  

    Supervisor races cover a smaller population and contested races usually have a high CPV. The upside of a smaller electorate is that a candidate with a lot of spare time, a really good sneaker collection and the stamina of a triathlete can contact every voter in the district (it has been done!). 

    Results of top 3 finishers in District 2 (Marina, Cow Hollow, Pacific Heights, Presidio)

    Candidate Total votes Amount spent Cost per vote (CPV)
    CATHERINE STEFANI 10059 $421,772 $41.93
    NICK JOSEFOWITZ 8932 $816,510 $91.41
    SCHUYLER HUDAK 2564 $158,707 $61.90

    There’s a lot to unpack in this race. Catherine Stefani, who actually is a competitive triathlete, got outspent by 121% and 49% per vote than Nick and Schuyler respectively. She benefited greatly from name recognition as the appointed incumbent and is well-known in the District from her many years of service as a Legislative Aide. Rather than spend on flashy ads and glitzy swag, she relied on a committed group of unpaid volunteers, who walked precincts until their feet fell off and phone-banked until their heads exploded. That loyalty matters when canvassing; voters can tell the difference between a true believer and a paid campaign worker. Nick worked hard in this race, and as we say in hockey, he “left it all on the ice,” but for $91 per vote, he could have taken all 8932 voters to Harris’ Steakhouse for the Wagyu Ribeye that I never order because it’s the most expensive steak on the menu. Schuyler’s voters could go along and get a nice Filet Mignon. 

    Results of top 3 finishers in District 4 (Sunset/Parkside)

    Candidate Total votes Amount spent Cost per vote (CPV)
    GORDON MAR 6,477 $163,455 $25.24
    JESSICA HO 4,894 $183,380 $37.47
    TREVOR MCNEIL 2,263 $27,203 $12.02

    Jessica Ho spent 48% more per vote than Gordon Mar, but Gordon benefited from name recognition (it helps when your twin brother was a Supervisor) and a longer history in the District. Trevor kept his CPV low, but unfortunately, he also kept his total votes low. At $12 per vote, he could have taken all 2263 people out for a slice or 2 of pizza at Extreme Pizza.

    Results of District 6 (SoMa, Tenderloin, Mission Bay)

    Candidate Total votes Amount spent Cost per vote (CPV)
    MATT HANEY 9,217 $388,519 $42.15
    CHRISTINE JOHNSON 4,034 $183,380 $45.59
    SONJA TRAUSS 2,932 $27,203 $69.85

    Matt Haney, Member of the School Board and veteran of 2 elections, shellacked the competition; name recognition probably had a hand in keeping his CPV low. At $45 and $69 respectively, Christine and Sonja could have taken a total of 6966 people out for a really nice prix fixe meal, cocktails and wine at Destino’s on Market Street (across from the LGBT Center and a good friend to the Community).

    Results of District 8 (Castro, Diamond Heights, Noe, Twin Peaks)

    Candidate Total votes Amount spent Cost per vote (CPV)
    RAFAEL MANDELMAN 26,356 $213,573 $8.10
    THE OTHER GUY 2,421 N/A N/A

    In District 8, former San Francisco Bay Times columnist, current Supervisor and all-around mensch, Rafael Mandelman ran uncontested, but still spent $213,573 on slate card pledges, staff salaries, literature and heaven knows what else. He did get 26,356 votes for a very efficient CPV of $8.10; for a few extra bucks per person, he could treat all his voters to a nice lunch special at La Mediterranee, another good friend to our LGBT Community. The Other Guy did not file contributions or expenses with the FPPC, so he doesn’t get his name in this article. 

    Results of District 10 (Bayview, Hunters Point, Visitacion Valley)

    Candidate Total votes Amount spent Cost per vote (CPV)
    SHAMANN WALTON 6,120 $199,729 $32.64
    TONY KELLY 3,252 $190,554 $53.65
    THEO ELLINGTON 2,964 $181,557 $61.25

    This race followed the traditional pattern, School Board member Shamann Walton’s name recognition kept his CPV low. Theo, a first-time candidate, had to spend more to get his message out to voters. The outlier to the theory is Tony Kelly; he’s well known in the District and has run for Supervisor in 2 previous elections. For his $53 per vote he could take 3,252 people to dinner at Piccino Cafe in Dogpatch (sponsor of the recent “One Fair Wage” event and contributor to many activist causes).

    So, now you know how the money is spent and what it costs to run for office, at least here in San Francisco. If you are considering a future run, start raising money now!

    Louise (Lou) Fischer is the Immediate Past Co-Chair of the Board of Directors for the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club and has served as an appointed and elected Delegate for the State Democratic Party. She is a proud graduate of the Emerge California Women’s Democratic Leadership program, was a San Francisco Commissioner and has served in leadership positions in multiple nonprofit and community-based organizations.