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Why the Caltrain Sales Tax Wins Even If It 'Loses' in Santa Clara County

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Caltrain at 16th Street crossing in San Francisco's Mission Bay neighborhood.  (throgers via Flickr)

We told you last week that Measure RR, the measure that would impose a one-eighth-cent sales tax to support Caltrain, looked like it was on its way to rather easily getting the two-thirds majority it needed from voters in Santa Clara, San Francisco and San Mateo counties.

That's still true today, though there's a little bit of a wrinkle in the results people have been asking us about.

As of Tuesday evening, with the most recent returns from all three counties, Measure RR was getting a 69% "yes" vote. That's obviously well above the 66.66% threshold, and with a rapidly shrinking number of outstanding ballots to count, the tax is a done deal

But here's the thing people are asking about: The vote in two of the three counties involved, San Francisco and San Mateo, is well above 70% "yes." But the vote in the third county, Santa Clara, has actually dropped below the two-thirds threshold and now stands at 65.9%.

So, what gives? Does Measure RR go down to defeat if it fails to get a two-thirds vote in Santa Clara County?


The answer: No. The measure's success or failure depends on the collective vote total from all three counties, which are joined together in a special district called the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Authority.

In essence, when voters cast their "yes" or "no" ballots on Measure RR, they were doing so not as citizens of San Mateo, Santa Clara or San Francisco counties but as residents of that special district. It's the same basic process as voting in a legislative district that spans several counties: What decides the race is the district total, not the totals in each county.

This isn't the first time in recent Bay Area history that a multicounty tax measure has succeeded despite failing to get the needed vote in one or more of the counties involved.

For instance, BART's $3.5 billion bond measure in 2016 (also called Measure RR) needed a two-thirds majority because it sought to impose parcel taxes in the three BART counties — Alameda, Contra Costa and San Francisco.

Voters in San Francisco and Alameda counties embraced the idea, giving it "yes" votes of 81.3% and 71.3% respectively. Contra Costa voters did not warm up to the idea quite so much, though 60.4% of them voted for it. The overall result was a 70.5% bond approval in the three BART counties.

In 2018, Bay Area voters were asked to approve toll increases on the region's state-owned bridges. The state law authorizing the measure, Regional Measure 3, effectively turned the nine Bay Area counties into a special district where a simple majority of all voters could approve the increases.

The measure won 55% approval in the region, though voters in two of the counties opposed it. In Contra Costa County, the vote was 55.5% "no." In Solano, it was 70% against. (Although Regional Measure 3 passed, it's been the subject of several court challenges. One, which argues the bridge toll increases are a tax requiring two-thirds voter approval, is headed to the state Supreme Court. In the meantime, the first round of higher tolls took effect last year and are being collected but not spent pending the outcome of the case).

You might ask who set up the rules for special district tax votes like the one involved in Caltrain's Measure RR. The answer is, basically, we the voters.

Article XIIIC of the California Constitution, approved by voters in 1996 as Proposition 218, sets out the basic rules for special district taxing authority and requirements for voter approval.

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