Understanding the effects of Progressive Era electoral reforms on city elections: The San Francisco Board of Supervisors' races
In 1996, after one-hundred years of at-large city elections, the citizens of San Francisco passed an electoral reform initiative that returned their Board of Supervisor elections to the original district system, dramatically reshaping the city's government. This dissertation examines that change, illustrating how San Francisco initially enacted at-large elections, and then, how new reform advocates succeeded in reinstating district elections. Next, it assesses the impact of that reinstatement on campaign spending, the influence of community group and newspaper endorsements, and voter participation. The results suggest that the reform reduced the efficacy of large expenditures by candidates, increased the power of newspaper endorsements, and increased participation especially among some minority groups.
This dissertation begins by challenging historical accounts of Progressive Era reforms, arguing that traditional explanations are overly deterministic generalizations of the era that often fail to see the unique circumstances leading to the success or failure of the reform agenda in individual cities. The dissertation's findings suggest that, in San Francisco, a novel combination of interests coalesced around Progressive Era reforms, and that this included the city's large population of union laborers.
Next, the dissertation examines the vote for proposition G, the measure to return the city to a district format, analyzing which groups voted for the reform. Using ecological inference estimates, the dissertation presents evidence that a broad new majority coalition of blacks, Latinos, and progressive whites united to support the change, challenging previous findings that conservative voters were the crucial supporters of the measure.
Finally, the dissertation examines the effect of the two different electoral configurations on campaigns, community group influence and constituent behavior. Specifically, the dissertation explores whether there are significant differences between the two systems in terms of, the impact on campaign spending and the influence of money in determining winning outcomes, newspaper and community groups' political power, and voter turnout and participation. Using formal testing, this dissertation supports the hypotheses that returning to district elections allows less well-funded candidates to compete, increases the power of some newspaper and community groups' endorsements, and increases constituent's participation in municipal supervisor elections.