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Politics & Policy

Did Asian voter turnout play a decisive role in the SF school board recall? Maybe not

A common media narrative of the San Francisco school board recall paints a picture of masses of angry Asian parents at the polls for the first time, demanding more advanced placement classes for their ambitious children. 

But a Standard analysis of the voter turnout in three neighborhoods that are more than half Asian – Sunset, Visitacion Valley and Chinatown – shows that their turnout patterns were more or less in line with the most recent prior election, the California gubernatorial recall. 

For these two votes, The Standard compared the difference between each neighborhood’s turnout and the citywide average turnout for that election. For the school board recall, the citywide average turnout was 36%, and for the gubernatorial recall it was 68%. In the Sunset, turnout for both recalls were almost the same as the citywide average, though a tad higher for the school board: 38% and 68%. For Chinatown, turnout for both elections was a bit lower than the citywide average: 34% for the school board recall and 64% for the gubernatorial recall. And for Visitacion Valley, turnout was below average by about the same amount in both elections: 26% for the school board recall and 51% for the gubernatorial recall. (The accompanying chart below shows each neighborhood’s turnout percent change from the citywide average turnout.)

And the neighborhoods that turned out highest for the school board recall? The “heights” neighborhoods: Diamond Heights, Presidio Heights and Bernal Heights, in addition to neighboring Twin Peaks, Noe Valley and Castro / Eureka Valley. Those neighborhoods are wealthy, white, older and have more homeowners.

“I’m not really surprised,” said longtime political analyst David Latterman. “The recall wasn’t enough to bring anybody out other than the hardcore San Francisco voters, who are the angry NIMBYs and homeowners.”

Latterman said that the comparatively low turnout was what he’d expect for an off-season municipal election, and in his experience those most likely to come out for such votes are conservative homeowners whose politics would align with recalling the school board.

“The only time elections really bring out voters besides the hardcore voters are for big players like President or Governor,” he said. “And the only time I have seen Asian turnout skyrocket was for Mayor Ed Lee.”

Others say that they think Asians did turn out higher than normal for the school board recall. 

“Asian turnout tends to be 10 to 15% lower than citywide turnout,” said David Lee, Executive Director of the Chinese American Voters Education Committee. “And anecdotal evidence shows that Asian Americans had a very high turnout.”

Lee said he’ll be running an analysis of Asian American turnout when the master voter file is available, which provides an individual-level record of who voted.

All are agreed on one thing: the recall enjoyed high support in the Asian community.

“The Asians that did come out sure as hell voted for the recall,” said Latterman.

About the Data 

The Standard took neighborhood-level voter turnout data from the 2022 school board recall and the 2021 gubernatorial recall and compared each neighborhood’s turnout to the average citywide turnout. The comparison was calculated with a percent difference formula, which was (neighborhood turnout - average citywide turnout ) / average citywide turnout. The neighborhood map that the SF Department of Elections uses is here