Tuesday night, Election Night, in downtown San Diego a lot of professional political operatives will drink too much. Supporters of triumphant candidates will dance and lose their voices screaming cheers and chants. Other people, in a much different mood, will quietly slip out of “victory” parties that don’t have a victory to celebrate.
That’s how it always is. One thing, though, will be very different: There will be no Election Central at Golden Hall. The last one took place in March 2020. In November of that year, gatherings were prohibited, and it didn’t happen.
Now? Gatherings are fine. But Golden Hall is a homeless shelter and Election Central is off.
“I can only speak for this year and Golden Hall was not available. We could not find any other locations available so we will not have Election Central this year,” said Cynthia Paes, the county’s registrar of voters.
As a young journalist almost 20 years ago, I discovered Election Central and fell in love. Voting is the most important function of a representative democracy. Yet, when months of campaigning, millions of dollars of spending and all the tense arguments are over on Election Night, all you are left with is TV and social media. Except in San Diego, where Election Central made the climax and resolution of all that conflict a public convening – a celebration where all parties could be together and share what happened as a community.
It wasn’t always peaceful. In 2010, then Mayor Jerry Sanders’ security detail had to rush Rep. Bob Filner out of Golden Hall when supporters of his opponent in the South Bay congressional race, Nick Popaditch, crowded around him. It was an ugly scene but it was rare.
The registrar started Election Central decades ago to hand out printed vote updates to journalists and the public. It evolved into something much better than that. TV and radio stations ringed Golden Hall with temporary studios. Journalists from newspapers (and eventually nascent internet-based newsrooms) would gather at the tables set up under a giant screen ready to scroll through vote counts.
Sure it’s not uncommon to gather on Election Night but rarely on neutral ground. The candidates will always have their hotel rooms and private parties. The Democratic and Republican Parties themselves have hotel ballrooms. Interest groups had parties you maybe could get into.
But Election Central was for everyone. You’d see groups of Boy Scouts. You’d see high school journalists interviewing congressmen. The mayor would come in. Treasurer-Tax Collector Dan McAllister would stand there waiting to see results near a guy wearing a sandwich board with a cONspIRaCy theory written out on it.
Before results came out pundits like me would make the rounds. Someone not on the ballot that year, maybe the mayor, maybe Treasurer-Tax Collector Dan McAllister, maybe some college professor, would help the TV stations fill time.
When results started coming in, some winners would be obvious. Soon, they and their brigade would parade into Golden Hall with signs. Something happens to a candidate when they win an election, they beam – they become a politician and you could see it in how they looked at you, or past you, in those moments, compared to how they had looked at you just days earlier, as candidates.
I’ll never forget Election Central in November 2004. A controversial candidate for city attorney, Mike Aguirre, had the lead but it didn’t look good. He was scheduled to go to Election Central but he never came, paranoid he wouldn’t win or that something corrupt was happening.
I called him to ask what he remembered about Election Central and his many races — the wins and the losses.
“It was mostly losing. I got really good at losing,” he said. He did win that night but it was only clear days later. He didn’t get his parade until the day he and his entourage walked over to get inaugurated, also at Golden Hall. “You could always tell who was having a good night by who was beaming in front of the cameras and who just was not or was not even there.”
Election Central felt normal but also too good to be true — like it was one gust of wind away from falling apart. It wasn’t wind, though, that killed it.
It was a pandemic and the homeless crisis. Golden Hall was once the site of Comic-Con and the home of the American Basketball League San Diego Conquistadors. Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead played there. But I’ll remember it as Election Central.
And its days as a convention center or concert venue or even just where city attorneys take their oaths of office are maybe over. It is a homeless shelter now. The crisis of unhoused San Diegans does not appear to be getting better any time soon. The city is in the early stages of a massive redevelopment plan to bulldoze and rebuild the entire area around City Hall, including Golden Hall.
County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher said he hopes to get it going again, in the future, if it can find a new home.
But for now, in an eerie symbol of all that’s happened in the last two years, that special neutral ground where competing parties and candidates met to celebrate and witness democracy is now a temporary, emergency shelter for people trying to survive.