I consulted campaign websites (mainly to find who endorsed local candidates); Ballotpedia, especially for California propositions; my friends; and the YIMBY and SPUR voter guides, detailed below.
You already know why you're voting for Joe Biden, but let me add that his housing plan is solid. He supports fully funding the Section 8 housing voucher program, a relatively cheap step that would dramatically reduce poverty. He also supports ending exclusionary single family home zoning, and creating a new renter's tax credit. I'm not optimistic Biden would actually risk alienating fauxgressive suburban residents by making significant zoning changes a priority, but he has the potential to move us in the right direction on housing.
I support Ro Khanna for reelection. Khanna unseated incumbent Mike Honda in 2016, with support from tech exectives. He's gone on to push both some technocratic, progressive reforms—for example, passing a bipartisan bill to let veterans use G.I. Bill funding for tech training programs, and authoring an "internet bill of rights." Surprisingly for me, he's also tacked in a populist direction; with Senator Bernie Sanders, he's introduced the Stop BEZOS and Stop WALMART Acts in 2018. Those bills would punish companies whose employees receive food stamps or health care subsidies, or who don't offer a $15 minimum wage, respectively. Though they weren't close to becoming law, Khanna did seem to influence Amazon into raising its minimum wage to $15 the same year the Stop BEZOS Act was introduced.
I interviewed Khanna at UC Berkeley in 2014. source: the Daily Cal
Though I'm wary of Khanna's turn to populism, and wish he'd endorsed SB 50 or taken a firm pro-housing stand, I'm pleased with his overall record. He's running against a Republican, and with today's polarization in Congress (and thus any Republican in office likely to support a Trump administration and oppose a Biden one), it would take an extreme situation for me to support a Republican.
Both candidates in this race are Democrats, and Ann Ravel (who I'm not endorsing) has been endorsed by the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Jose Mercury News, and President Barack Obama, so she's clearly a plausible candidate.
Evan Low, the incumbent, is running against a Republican, Carlos Rafael Cruz. I don't need much convincing to support Democrats over Republicans, and Cruz's platform seems largely about reducing California state government control, while I support more state control to force cities to build more housing.
Stuart J. Scott, the incumbent, is running unopposed, and was endorsed by more than 60 judges, including the retiring judge he replaced.
In 2016, Scott committed an ethics violation by privately discussing a case with a prosecutor. He was investigated by the ethics commission and admonished, but not censured or removed. He was then transferred transferred to family court, which is civil court rather than criminal court where he'd committed the infraction. Given the lack of opposition and the elapsed time, this single incident doesn't change my vote.
I'm endorsing the three incumbents, Laura Casas, Peter Landsberger, and Gilbert Wong. The challenger, Govind Tatachari, has a generically-acceptable-sounding platform. However, the officials endorsing him are largely NIMBYs, conservatives who oppose more housing. These include Steven Scharf and Kitty Moore, Cupertino officials who have aggressively opposed the Vallco redevelopment (which I wrote about last year). Scharf also uttered the infamous line that "Cupertino should build a wall and make San Jose pay for it." Neither are listed as having endorsed any of the incumbents. Since offices like this one can be stepping stones to city councils or other positions, the fact that Tatachari seems aligned with the conservative faction of Cupertino politics is reason enough for me to oppose him.
I endorse the two incumbents, Sylvia Leong and Phyllis Vogel, with similar reasons as the above community college district race. Both candidates are endorsed by many local politicians, including Rod Sinks, the moderate, pro-housing Cupertino City Council member I trust, but not the Cupertino NIMBYs.
Conversely, of the two challengers, Sudha Kasamsetty is endorsed by Steven Scharf and Kitty Moore (who are bad; see above). William Fluewelling doesn't even appear to have a campaign website.
The Cupertino City Council race is an opportunity to remove Steven Scharf and Kitty Moore from local politics. Steven Scharf has led the anti-development faction in city council, supporting "futile and costly lawsuits" to try to stop the Vallco redevelopment project. He's also embarrassed Cupertino by joking about building a wall around Cupertino and making San Jose pay for it.
By contrast, I'm genuinely excited about Joseph "J.R." Fruen, who's running on an explicitly pro-housing, pro-transit, and anti-car platform. I also support Hung Wei, who seems inoffensive, and at least far better than Scharf or Moore. Finally, Charlene Lee isn't a serious candidate: see her campaign website for why.
This proposition would renew funding for the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), which was created and financed by voters in a 2004 proposition, and has since run out of money. Prop 14 lacks endorsements from prominent California politicians, and $5.5B is a lot of money. There's no clear rationale for this spending, and I think we could do a lot better with $5.5B (for scale, the entire San Francisco Muni budget is $1.3B).
Prop 15 is a significant step in undoing the biggest mistake in California political history, Prop 13. Under 1978's Prop 13, property taxes cannot go up with the value of the property; instead, they increase by 2% or the inflation rate per year, whichever is lower. Imagine that in 1980, Apple bought a building for $5M. Then, after 40 years, Apple pays taxes on $11M in assessed value, even if its campus is now worth $200M. (So if Stripe were to buy the same building, they'd have to pay 20 times more.) Prop 13 also caps the property tax rate at 1%.
Prop 13 has resulted in many state services, including schools, being underfunded. It has led our tax code to be more reliant on income and capital gains taxes, which are more volatile. As a result, we've had budget shortages in past recessions. It also causes staggering inequities, where one household or business pays way less property tax than their neighbor, just because they have owned their property for longer.
This year's Prop 15 repeals Prop 13 for commercial properties, while retaining it for residences. It phases in beginning in 2022, and by 2026 it would assess business property taxes based on property value. It is expected to generate ~$10B per year towards schools, community colleges, and local governments, mitigating the budget issues mentioned above.
One negative effect of Prop 13 is that it's encouraged cities (for example, Bay Area suburbs) to build more office space than housing. Revenue from housing (property taxes) is capped by Prop 13, and while that applies to businesses as well, payroll and other taxes can be levied on businesses. Unfortunately, Prop 15 may exacerbate this imbalance, by making commercial property even more profitable for local governments. However, this potential drawback is not serious enough for me to oppose the measure; there are zoning and other policy changes we could make to encourage housing production, and the money raised by the measure is more important.
Prop 15 has been endorsed by most prominent state politicians, as well as all major Democratic 2020 presidential nominees.
This proposition would repeal 1996's Proposition 209, which stated that the California government and universities cannot "discriminate against or grant preferential treatment to persons on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in public employment, public education, and public contracting." If passed, it would allow affirmative action programs to be reinstituted at the University of California system.
A lesser-discussed potential impact of Prop 16's passage would be on government jobs and contracts. As the legislature wrote in their statement placing Prop 209 on the ballot, its implementation "cost women and people of color over $1,000,000,000 annually in lost contract awards." A UCSC study finds that contract prices fell 5.6% after Prop 209, as state governments were no longer required to prefer minority-owned businesses. Conversely, a Berkeley Law study emphasizes the return of "good old boy" networks, in which well-connected, nonminority contractors had more influence in government contracting, in preventing equal access to minority businesses after the passage of Prop 209.
Prop 16 is endorsed by most state politicians, as well as SPUR and the ACLU of California.
This proposition restores the right to vote for people on parole for felonies (though not those currently serving their sentence). I believe all adult citizens should have the right to vote, and am in favor of this proposition.
This proposition prepones the voting age so that anyone who'd be old enough to vote by the general election could also vote in the primary election. California would join 18 other states in making this change. It makes sense to adjust eligibility to let someone vote for a complete primary/general cycle.
Back to Prop 13. One especially galling provision, added in subsequent amendments, is that it's inheritable. In California, we have a feudal system, in which if you were lucky enough to buy real estate years ago, your children (and even grandchildren!) can inherit not just your property but your artificially low tax rate. Prop 13's tax rate is inheritable not just on your primary home, but also on up to $1M of assessed value of other property. So, for example, your landlord's child could inherit an expensive apartment building, and continue paying less in annual property tax than your monthly rent.
Prop 19 would get rid of this tax break, allowing Prop 13's tax rate to only be inherited on the primary home in which the inheritor resides. This is the reason I'm in favor.
The trade-off is that Prop 19 would increase the value of the Prop 13 tax break for those 55 and older. They are currently able to take their artificially low Prop 13 rates with them if they sell their home and buy another (a) in the same county and (b) for no more than their current home was worth. Prop 19 removes both of those restrictions. I believe older homeowners are huge beneficiaries of California's tax system; are usually wealthy due to appreciation of their property values; and do not need additional tax breaks, and thus do not support this provision of Prop 19. However, one silver lining is that it might encourage homeowners living in high-cost, high-opportunity areas to move elsewhere, increasing the supply of houses in Cupertino, Palo Alto, and Berkeley (for example) available for younger folks in the workforce.
I don't support lengthening criminal sentences, and especially not removing the possibility of parole, as this proposition does for 51 crimes. This proposition is supported by the Republican Party and Devin Nunes, and opposed by the Democratic Party, former Governor Jerry Brown, and the ACLU of California.
Since the 1995 Costa-Hawkins Act, cities in California have been heavily restricted in passing rent control laws. They're only allowed to impose rent control on (a) apartments, not single-family homes or condos (b) built before 1995 (or a city's existing cutoff date, 1979 for San Francisco).
Prop 21 would allow cities to impose rent control on (a) single-family homes, as long as they're owned by individuals who own at least 3 homes (b) which were built more than 15 years ago. New construction is exempt from rent control for 15 years (to allow developers to profit from the building) before it kicks in.
Another change is that under current law, when a rent-controlled tenant leaves, the landlord can raise rents to market rate. This incentivizes landlords to evict heavily rent-controlled tenants. Prop 21 allows cities to cap the rent increase when a vacancy occurs at 15% every 3 years. This may reduce the eviction incentive, but it could also incentivize landlords to rent a unit to their friends rather than the broader market, or to sell the house to a new owner (who might live in it, taking it off the rental market entirely).
I recognize the value of rent control for allowing lower-income folks to stay in their homes, and reducing the financial burden of rent. Expanding rent control might also reduce the rancor between tenant groups and more pro-development groups, which may lead to a more productive housing politics in California.
The primary cause of high housing prices in California is that supply is too low because we haven't built enough homes. Prop 21 would not solve this problem. At the margin, it might worsen it, by reducing the profit developers would expect on their new construction. However, I couldn't find compelling evidence for this. I found the UC Berkeley study cited by SPUR on this unconvincing, because it drew its conclusions by asking industry experts with a stake in the outcome their opinion. At any rate, the far bigger obstacle to housing supply is that apartments are illegal to build in 70% of San Francisco, as well as the vast majority of other residential land in California. As Alfred Twu points out, historically rent control was enacted after downzonings reduced housing supply and increased prices. We should address zoning and other restrictions, rather than using the supply concerns to block any expansion of rent control.
A 2018 California Supreme Court decision, codified into law by 2019's AB 5, restricted worker categories which could be classified as independent contractors. It was recently amended to exclude many industries from being affected, so that AB 5 now appears aimed squarely at Uber, Lyft, Doordash, and other tech companies.
Uber and Lyft have responded by placing Prop 22 on the ballot. This proposition would overturn AB 5 for "app-based drivers," as well as specify some benefits and labor protections for them, for example partial health insurance payments depending on the number of hours worked.
A much-maligned provision of Prop 22 is an incredibly high 7/8th threshold for amending it in the legislature. As context, it's important to remember that by default voter propositions cannot be amended by the legislature at all (only by the voters in another proposition). This raises the question: should labor regulations be passed by ballot proposition, and written largely by the companies they'd regulate?
Even though I do think AB 5 needs further reform, and Prop 22's provisions seem, at a glance, to grant significant worker protections with more flexibility than AB 5 allows, I would rather those changes be done through the normal legislative process. I am pretty skeptical of letting Uber regulate itself.
One final note regarding the size of the impact of AB 5 on Uber: its CEO suggested in an interview that its prices might go up by 20% in San Francisco if Uber had to classify drivers as employees, which isn't a large increase.
You may remember a similar dialysis-related proposition (2018's Prop 8, which failed). Both propositions are the result of a labor dispute between a healthcare worker union and the duopoly of companies who run dialysis clinics in California. Don't spend any more mental energy on it—any regulatory changes needed for dialysis should be done through the normal legislative process.
This proposition amends data privacy laws and establishes a new California Privacy Protection Agency. It's backed by a few politicians including Ro Khanna, David Chiu, Nancy Skinner, and Andrew Yang, but opposed by the ACLU of California and most media editorials. It was placed on the ballot after being filed by a random San Francisco-based real estate developer and amends a California data privacy law that was passed recently, in 2018.
Given the complexity of this proposition, and how recently the law it's amending was passed, I default to voting no. Any changes ought to be made through the legislature, after the full impacts of the 2018 law have become clear.
The cash bail system requires low-income people accused of a crime to turn to family or high-interest bail bond companies to post bail in order to return to their jobs and lives while awaiting trial. If someone is likely to reoffend or flee, it makes sense to hold them in jail; if not, the bail is unnecessary.
One concern I've heard about this proposition is that the "risk assessment tool" which would be used to decide whether to release offenders would be biased against minority groups. The proposition states that the tools should be "demonstrated by scientific research to be accurate" and "minimize bias," which at least seems well-intentioned. While algorithms and ML tools can perpetuate existing bias, I'd trust them more than the existing system, in which individual judges make subjective decisions.
Parcel taxes are common in California as a supplemental funding method for schools. In Fremont Union High School District (FUHSD), the parcel tax has been $98 since at least 2004. Every 6 years, it's been renewed, and I support the additional funding for schools at a small cost to Cupertino homeowners.
As a side note, in 2009, the school district attempted to pass a permanent parcel tax, which would increase with inflation, to avoid having to run these campaigns every 6 years. However, they only had 60% approval, short of the required two-thirds majority, so they promptly retried with the standard 6-year extension.
Sure, I support renewing the existing parcel tax, at the same rate, for clean drinking water, and earthquake and flood protection.
This small, 1/8 cent sales tax would allow Caltrain to continue operating amid dramatic ticket revenue decreases during the pandemic.
Thanks to Vadim, Hansen, Maggie, Daylen, Andy, and Japheth for your helpful suggestions. Feel free to send me suggestions or complaints on Twitter @barakgila, or with the form below.