Looking for the Tech Vote -- and Finding There Isn't One
Voted yet? Will Hayworth has, proving not all young tech workers in San Francisco are politically disengaged workaholics. (Rachael Myrow/KQED)
Tens of thousands of tech workers have flooded into San Francisco in recent years, changing the face of the city. How will they affect the upcoming election?
Let’s begin by agreeing that there is no techie block vote. We’re not talking about The Borg here. But more to the point, the data don’t back up the assumption that all tech workers vote the same way.
"There’s not a variable that says 'techie' that we can check off," says David Latterman, who runs the quantitative research firm Fall Line Analytics. He has crunched political data locally for more than a decade, and he thinks the most salient factor is not so much what people do for a living but how old they are and how recently they arrived in San Francisco.
"I know 50-year-old techies on the far left, and [others] who are staunchly conservative, and everything in between," Latterman says. "The older they get, the more they diffuse into the city and the body politic."
Ned Lerner, director of engineering at Sony Computer Entertainment America, typifies that older techie voter. "I only started voting local when I thought of myself as part of the local community, which took a while."
The 56-year-old resident of the Richmond district moved to San Francisco in 1995. Lerner says his attitude about voting changed after he became a homeowner and a parent.
“I'm much more likely to think about what is better -- or worse -- for my kids,” Lerner says. “I'm also increasingly aware of how complex the world is, which the issues on the ballot reflect, how the process is manipulated by those who have a personal stake, and how inadequate my knowledge is -- and very likely, the knowledge of those who I might defer to, including the media.”
Latterman adds: "A lot of younger people, they’re not focused yet. People like to talk: 'You know, we have this tech group mobilized.' No, they don’t. There’s no evidence."
Also, he says, because young tech workers are not likely to vote, they're not being targeted by political candidates and campaigns, either with mailers or social media. At least, not in this year's election, given that there's no hotly contested race at the top of the ticket.
Latterman's assessment is widely shared by other analysts who watch San Francisco politics closely.
"I think the jury is still out as to how politically engaged the majority of new young tech workers are," says Rachel Brahinsky, assistant professor of urban affairs at the University of San Francisco. "You may have some people who are new to the city and haven’t figured out how to plug in yet. They may be just out of college and aren’t that politicized necessarily. Some of them are. Some of them aren’t. And then if they’re getting some of these tech jobs, they are very, very busy."
That's the stereotype: the young recent arrival to San Francisco who lives in a bubble, shuttling between home and work, the bar and coffee bar, with nary a thought to civic engagement.
But enough from the political pundits.
Let's Talk To More Techies
I headed for Sightglass Coffee, South of Market. It’s hip, spacious and packed with people who work in tech. Over the hum and swoosh of beans being roasted on-site, people hold business meetings or tap away diligently on their laptops. I expected to meet disengaged workaholics. Instead, I ran into 26-year-old Bill Rowan, a software engineer who’s been living in Cole Valley for three years. Does he vote?
"Every year," he replies.
Has he voted yet this year?
"Not yet," Rowan replies. "I know I still have a little more time to make my selections, but I’ve already started studying the issues."
Rowan is so serious about doing his civic duty that he's a member of the nonprofit San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (or SPUR) and attended a recent meeting to learn more about this year’s ballot.
I do meet a couple of guys who don’t vote, like Amit Desai, who’s lived in SoMa for seven years. He works in marketing for a software company. Desai is 44. So, according to prevailing wisdom, he should be politically active. But no.
"I’m largely apolitical." He chalks it up to cynicism, even though Desai says he’s troubled by the way the housing crisis has affected the cultural diversity of San Francisco.
"San Francisco is a great city, pretty city," Desai says. "But it’s definitely becoming less diverse. At this rate, we’re going to have something akin to Manhattan, for techies, as opposed to bankers. More homogenous, wealthy group of residents, plus commuters and tourists."
I think to myself the KQED mic flag might be scaring away “brogrammers,” the stereotypical frat boy programmer everybody loves to hate. Or perhaps I'm attracting a self-selecting data pool of voters. I meet one middle-aged tech worker who refuses to talk on tape. He says he listens to KQED and he knows he'll come off badly admitting he doesn't vote.
But the more time I spend at Sightglass, the more I meet young people working in tech who are really, really politically engaged. None more so than 24-year-old Will Hayworth, a software developer for Atlassian. Hayworth voted the same night the ballot arrived in the mail.
"I couldn’t fall asleep because I was so excited to vote!" Hayworth laughs. Despite moving to San Francisco just a year and a half ago, Hayworth can go down the list of housing measures from memory, thoughtfully explaining each vote.
"We are already seeing how high rents are re-shaping the city, and not in good ways," they say. (Hayworth identifies as genderqueer, so I'll be using the pronoun "they" from here on out.)
I ask if Hayworth's passion for politics is considered normal by friends and co-workers. Sipping on a vanilla iced cold brew, they say no. "When you try and discuss it and everything, you just sort of get blank stares."
Hayworth's interest makes a lot more sense when you learn politics is a family concern. Their mother Nan Hayworth was a Republican congresswoman in New York.
"I feel loathed as a gay guy, sometimes. I feel loathed as a Republican among the gays. And I feel loathed as a techie by everybody who’s not in tech," they say.
With fingernails painted bright blue, Hayworth taps on an iPhone to pull up a photo of a poster you can still find slapped on telephone poles around SoMa.
The logic of the poster isn't exactly clear. Only the Mission is mentioned, although tech workers have reshaped a number of neighborhoods in the city. The list of companies seems to favor those that get a lot of media coverage, as opposed to, say, a list of the top tech employers in San Francisco. Whatever the case, Hayworth resents the malice communicated.
"Nobody, but nobody would confuse me for a brogrammer. I hope," Hayworth says. "The fact they would just tar such a big group of people without knowing any of them. You know, obnoxious people in a bar do not represent, like, the entire tech community. And it’s really unfortunate that political discourse in San Francisco kind of throws all these people together."
But how do I relate my findings here at Sightglass to what political analysts who parse voting data say? I went back to David Latterman to get his take. He promises voters like Hayworth who are outliers now will get noticed within a couple election cycles.
And “anyone who's ever voted will be targeted next year.” Why? Because that will be a presidential election.