Estimates put the number of posts filled through off-year elections at about 176,000

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Even in an ‘off-year’ Americans are asked
to elect hundreds of thousands of officials

By Steve Holgate

8 September 2007: The world watches closely every four years as the United States elects a new president, and most people know that congressional elections are held every other year. But many people may not realize that even in off-years, such as 2007, thousands of elective positions are filled around the country.

The combination of a strong democratic tradition, a highly decentralized political system and the vast size of the United States creates a mind-boggling number and variety of elective offices across the country. Estimates put the number of posts filled through off-year elections at about 176,000.

These positions include governors, mayors and city council members, of course, but also lesser known posts such as library and school boards, fire and police commissioners, county tax auditors and water district advisory boards. Many of these posts are unpaid, offering only the satisfaction of public service and the chance to make a difference.

Nevertheless, in the United States, local office holders wield broader powers than in most other countries. They can establish taxes, regulate business transactions and set environmental and building requirements. The majority of criminal cases prosecuted in the country are for violation of state and local laws, not federal statutes.

States differ in the range of their elected positions. In many western states, for instance, voters elect judges, sheriffs and heads of the state school system - posts that are filled elsewhere by executive appointment.

Voters also determine the fate of a dizzying array of state and local issues including tax increases, bond offerings, public facility uses and environmental standards. Voters in many states can petition to place issues on the state ballot.

In 2007, in addition to votes on many state and local ballot issues, three states will elect governors, four states will vote for their state legislators and a number of major cities will hold mayoral elections, including Philadelphia, Baltimore and San Francisco.

The San Francisco mayoral election is representative of these off-year elections, but, like San Francisco itself, has its own special flavor. Life and politics in the legendary city often have been on the formative edge of American life, from San Francisco’s wild, even anarchic days during the California Gold Rush that started in 1849, through the city’s experience as the cradle of the hippie movement in 1967, into its current place as one of the most liberal cities in the United States.

Though Mayor Gavin Newsom’s tenure has been marked by personal scandal, he has maintained strong approval ratings throughout his time in office, according to Phil Matier, a political columnist for the city’s leading daily The San Francisco Chronicle. Much of Newsom’s political strength comes from his support for gay marriage, according to Matier. Even though this position would be political poison in most American cities, it proved popular in San Francisco. (The municipal decision to allow gay marriage in San Francisco later was overturned by the courts.)

The mayor’s popularity has persuaded most of the city’s more prominent political figures not to challenge his re-election. Nevertheless, he is opposed by more than a dozen registered candidates, including an entertainment figure named “Chicken” John Rinaldi, a supporter of nudist rights and an advocate for the homeless. Two political bloggers, long known as local activists, are also among the candidates.

A few candidates have broader appeal, including a physician who has championed environmental causes, the director of a city-funded social agency, and a former member of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, but few observers expect any of these candidates to mount a serious challenge to the incumbent. Nevertheless, their diverse campaigns reflect the openness of the political process in the United States.

All San Francisco citizens are eligible to run for mayor by paying a registration fee or submitting a petition demonstrating the support of 10,000 voters. Like many elective positions in the country, the San Francisco mayor’s race is nonpartisan. None of the candidates declares party affiliation nor relies on the political parties for support

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