Hanging Chad

Ballot designations can sometimes be the hanging chad of SF politics.

When a candidate describes their day job on the ballot, legal technicalities and behind-the-scenes drama are never far behind. 

When we reported last week that District 6 Supervisorial candidate Matt Haney had challenged the ballot designation of his opponent, Christine Johnson, we considered it a minor footnote illustrating the procedural rough-and-tumble of running a political campaign in San Francisco. Since then, however, readers have reached out to us asking how this is even possible. Obsessive explainers that we are, the Beacon is happy to oblige.

As it turns out, how a candidate describes their day job on the ballot is a tightly regulated procedure, and often the center of litigation in the shadowy world of California election law. Because misleading ballot information is a time-sensitive issue for the public, California elections present a rare category of civil litigation in which lawsuits can see trials scheduled in the courts within a matter of days, rather than years, according to attorney Bradley W. Hertz. Luckily for candidates and their sleepless legal teams, the law is fairly unambiguous.

California Elections Code Section 13107, which Haney cited in his appeal to the San Francisco Department of Elections, limits vocational descriptions to a maximum of three words. This word limit does not apply to any candidate currently holding elected or appointed public office, such as Haney’s current tenure on the SFUSD Board of Education. Subsection (e) prohibits election officials from accepting designations which would “mislead the voter,” or contain superlative descriptions denoting virtue or eminence, among other prohibitions.

According to Hertz, this recently invalidated the ballot designation for a candidate running in a Republican County Central Committee Race who had listed their profession as “Conservative Author/Commentator.” Yes, even “Conservative,” according to the courts, was effectively a self-evaluation that violated the law.

Johnson’s chosen ballot designation as “housing policy educator” appears to split the difference between her two recently vacated positions, both in the public and private sector: as an appointed member of the city’s Planning Commission, and as Executive Director of the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR). Her dual role was roundly criticized at the time precisely because of a perceived conflict of interest over housing development in the city. This even became the subject of a heated controversy at the Ethics Commission, which may have violated state law in their rush to censure her.

According to Haney, this designation was “misleading” on two counts: (1) that “housing policy is not mentioned in the title, mission statement, or the description of what [SPUR] does”; and (2) that educational duties were not a “principal” aspect of Johnson’s role, as specified in the California Code of Regulations Section 20714, and that the description “only represents a nominal involvement” that fails to meet the requirements of the California Elections Code.

As we reported, Johnson appealed this challenge to the Department of Elections, which upheld her ballot designation.

In an email provided to the Beacon, Johnson defended her designation thusly: “SPUR has a mission to further good urban planning through research and education as outlined in the screenshot from the website. A core policy focus for SPUR has always been housing…Further, as a Planning Commissioner I have previously been asked to sit on public panels about housing in San Francisco and to speak at Stanford Law School on the topic of Redevelopment Law and housing.”

“This is not the first time someone has questioned my qualifications,” Johnson texted in a statement to the Beacon. “It’s a sad reality many women face. I’m disappointed in Matt Haney, and moving forward, we should be focused on the issues facing District 6, not petty politics.”

Evidently reading the room, Matt Haney did not return requests for comment.

Publisher's note: We hired the author of this article away from a contracting gig with another current District Six candidate, Sonja Trauss. Given his eagerness to take the current position, we do not consider Mr. Aguilar-Canabal's past employment history to be problematic or compromising of his professional integrity. We will include a similar disclosure to all our coverage of the D6 race, even those not assigned to our managing editor. 

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