In the final leg of San Francisco’s elections, Ed Jew surprised pundits by pulling ahead and winning the District 4 Supervisor race. This was the first election since the City implemented Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) where a candidate who did not lead among the first-choice votes carried enough second-choice votes to make it over the top and win. Jew’s victory stunned many political observers, most of whom do not live in District 4 and are not plugged into the Chinese-American community.
Jew won because of his closer ties with that community than Doug Chan or Jaynry Mak, as most Asian voters chose him as either their first or second choice. RCV hurts candidates who “go negative,” and Jew benefited from the fact that Chan and Mak spent most of the campaign fighting each other. The mainstream media completely missed the boat as it framed the race as being between Mak and Chan — who finished third and fourth place, respectively. When the possibility arose that a third candidate could pull an upset, the Chronicle erroneously believed that it would be Ron Dudum. While Ed Jew was a conservative candidate and a former Republican, his victory was a stunning defeat for Gavin Newsom – who had held onto his West Side base while gaining support among the City’s progressives. It was a triumph for District Elections, a win for Ranked Choice Voting, and a defeat for Downtown.
Ed Jew is not well known citywide, but he does have a base among the City’s Chinese-American community. A third-generation San Franciscan (his family emigrated from China in 1913), Jew is a small business owner who runs the Canton Flower Shop in Chinatown. Besides serving on the Republican County Central Committee before becoming a Democrat, Jew worked as a Volunteer Community Liaison to Supervisor Leland Yee — when he represented District 4. Jew has made a name for himself in the Asian-American community as a staunch opponent of affirmative action, as he opposed the “diversity index” for public schools. Most of his activism has involved School Board matters, which led some to wonder why he chose to run for Supervisor instead. Jew has been a strong critic of the Redevelopment Agency, which will help him find common ground with progressives on the Board.
In his post-election analysis on November 8th, pollster David Binder suggested that Chinese voters in the Sunset who picked an Asian candidate as their first choice were far more likely to select other Asian candidates as their second and third choices. While this could explain why Ron Dudum lost, it does not explain why Ed Jew won. Asian voters did not simply vote for Asian candidates. In a race where three of the main candidates were Chinese-American (Jew, Mak and Chan), Asian voters in District 4 were more sophisticated in deciding which specific candidate they felt represented their interests.
On Election Day, the Asian Law Caucus conducted an exit poll of 233 voters in District 4 in seven languages, asking which candidates they selected and in what order. Among the Asian voters interviewed, Ed Jew was the strong favorite – as he received 44% of the first-choice votes. Mak was a distant second at 21%, and Chan came in third. For Asian voters who did not select Jew as their first choice, he was their overwhelming pick for second choice. 61% of Mak voters interviewed put down Jew as their second choice, and 44% of Chan voters did so as well.
While the Asian Law Caucus study was only an exit poll, the total vote count from the Department of Elections proves that their sample was accurate. Compared with the other top candidates, Chan fared worst among voters who picked either Houston Zheng or David Ferguson as their first choice. When Chan’s first-place votes were distributed, Jew got more second-choice votes than Mak. After Mak was eliminated, her supporters favored Jew over Dudum – giving Jew the necessary margin of victory. Ed Jew won because he had a sizable number of first-place votes, and more voters picked him as a second choice than the other Asian-American candidates.
Chan may have lost among Asian voters in District 4 because he does not speak Cantonese or Mandarin. His commercials on Chinese television featured an endorsement from BART Director James Fang, who spoke in Mandarin. Meanwhile, Mak and Jew both speak fluent Cantonese – and effectively campaigned and spoke to the media in that language. Cantonese is the primary language of most Chinese immigrants in San Francisco – many of whom come from Hong Kong or the Guangzhou province – whereas a minority of them speak Mandarin. Whether this language barrier affected the outcome is still an open question. Supervisor Fiona Ma won this seat four years ago without speaking Cantonese or Mandarin, but her main opponent (Ron Dudum) was not Chinese.
Mak lost because of the Chronicle’s relentless attacks against her – whereas they ignored Chan’s campaign finance controversies. Proponents of RCV have argued for years that it will discourage negative campaigning because candidates will want voters who support one of their opponents to pick them as a second choice. Because conventional wisdom painted Mak as the “progressive” candidate and Chan as Downtown’s pick, both paid the price for what turned out to be a very negative campaign. In the end, voters were far more likely to pick Jew as their second choice because he was perceived as a “clean” candidate who did not get dragged into the mud.
While Jew’s campaign gained traction, the Chronicle ignored his candidacy – even after a Chamber of Commerce poll showed him coming in second place. In its October 30 article about the race, the Chronicle speculated that Dudum — not Jew — had the potential to pull an upset and make it a three-way race. “A candidate who got little mainstream media attention took this race off the strength of his presence in the Asian community,” said Malcolm Yeung of the Asian Law Caucus. “It’s troubling that the mainstream press completely missed the story in the Asian community – particularly when the Asian vote plays such a critical factor in this city.” Dudum himself put it best when he told the Chronicle, “a lot of the people who talk about this race don’t live here.”
With his candidate coming in an embarrassing fourth place, Gavin Newsom was the biggest loser in the District 4 race. It also renews questions about his standing on the conservative West Side, which helped elect him Mayor in 2003. Last June, Tony Hall and Frank Jordan joined forces to promote Proposition D (the Laguna Honda measure), hoping to tap into conservative disenchantment with the Mayor. Prop D’s massive defeat put an end to that theory, as observers concluded that while he had gained much support among progressives on the East Side, Newsom was still popular on the West Side. But now in District 4, a conservative businessman who is independent of the Mayor was elected Supervisor – and so the same questions will inevitably get asked again.
Ed Jew’s victory is also a triumph for Ranked Choice Voting, which continues to have its chorus of critics. One complaint is that ballots will get “exhausted” – if a voter only selects a first choice who is later eliminated, they will have no way to determine the final outcome. But while 25% of all ballots in the District 4 race were exhausted, it shows that voters need to be educated about the desirability of selecting all three choices. RCV disenfranchises voters in the same way that not all voters choose to finish their whole ballot, abstaining in some races where they don’t feel well informed.
Another complaint about RCV is that it is “confusing” – particularly in immigrant communities where people are unfamiliar with voting, let alone ranked-choice voting. But the Asian Law Caucus’ exit poll shows that Asian voters in District 4 generally understand how to use it. 66% of Asian respondents found the new system to be “helpful,” and only 23% found it “confusing.” In contrast, 57% of the survey’s non-Asian respondents found it “helpful,” and 18% found it “confusing.”
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