Saturday voting -- and how to fund it

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Alex Tourk, a local political consultant who was once Gavin Newsom's campaign manager, came by today to pitch us on his latest project: Saturday voting. He's generated a fair amount of press on the concept, and it sounds like one of those thing nobody could oppose; why not open the polls an extra day? In fact, why not open the polls from Friday until Monday? Why Tuesday, anyway?

Well, Tuesday voting is a creature of the mid-1800s, when it took a couple of days to get from the farm to the town center, and nobody wanted to start out on a Sunday. Now it's in the California constitution. But there's no law that says you can't vote Saturday AND Tuesday.

What Tourk is proposing is fairly simple: Voting places would be open Saturday, but there would be no voting machines. You'd just go there and fill out an absentee ballot. Which you could also do at home, of course, and a citywide vote-by-mail effort might increase turnout even more. (Or maybe it wouldn't, given the low rate at which census forms are getting returned.)

Tourk says he wants to build excitement about elections and community interest; that's why he wants the polls open an extra day -- and a day when more people are off work and thus, in theory, would have more time to vote. He's circulating an initiative that would set up a one-time pilot project, for the 2011 mayor's race. If it works, maybe the supervisors and the mayor will want to continue it.

Here's my big concern: Tourk doesn't want to ask for public money from a city that's deep in the red, so he's proposing to raise the $1 million or so it would cost for Saturday voting from private interests.

Of course, the names of the donors would all be public, but still: Managing elections is about the most central democratic function of a government -- and I really don't want to see private interests involved. It seems to me that if this is worth doing, it's worth paying for with public funds.

Where would that money come from? Here's an idea: Prop. 15, the California Fair Elections Act, would set up a pilot program for public funding for statewide elections. The money would come from fees on lobbyists. Why can't we do the same thing in San Francisco? Fund Saturday elections with a lobbyist fee -- and a tax on political consultants.

Seriously: Consultants make money by manipulating democracy. They represent, on a deep philosophical level, the privatization of American politics. I'm not saying all consultants are bad or that they should be outlawed or anything like that -- but a modest levy on political consultant fees would more than fund a Saturday election pilot program.

Tourk smiled when I suggested this, and would only say it was "an interesting idea." Now, which supervisor is going to pick up on a tax that will only offend the small number of people who help get all our local officials elected?