Most seasons bring unwanted rituals. Christmas begets horrid fruitcakes, Thanksgiving balloons our waistbands and San Francisco’s election season brings predictable accusations of voter fraud — with Chinatown seniors caught in the middle.
This election, the Asian Pacific Democratic Club, comprised of local, politically active Asian-Americans connected to Mayor Ed Lee, is suggesting that a powerful Chinatown nonprofit, the Chinatown Community Development Center, may be connected to the theft of Chinese-speaking seniors’ votes.
According to Tom Hsieh, a prominent political consultant in charge of the APDC, anonymous elderly Chinese-speaking voters were wrongfully persuaded to hand over their ballots, which were then filled out and illegally cast by someone else.
One of those ballots was filled out to vote for District 3 supervisor hopeful Aaron Peskin, Hsieh alleges, on whose behalf volunteers from CCDC are working. The mayor’s appointee, Supervisor Julie Christensen, is battling Peskin to retain her seat.
Hsieh never outright says CCDC is behind the alleged wrongdoing, but he does say (repeatedly) the fraud happened in buildings “owned or connected to” CCDC.
John Arntz, head of the Department of Elections, told me he takes the allegations seriously, but “just because there are allegations doesn’t mean they are true.”
Still, DOE did net a few complaints, and the District Attorney’s Office confirmed it is “looking into” the matter.
CCDC is a known political player, too. The housing provider has ties to powerbroker Rose Pak, and helped launch Mayor Ed Lee into his position.
The CCDC’s executive director, Rev. Norman Fong, is holding his head high. “We are not pointing our fingers at any candidate campaign,” Fong said in a press statement. “We don’t know who it is who are taking ballots and misleading seniors. We don’t know their agendas.”
This is an unfortunate election-year ritual in Chinatown. In 2011, supporters of Mayor Lee were accused of filling out and casting absentee ballots on behalf of elderly Chinatown voters. This year, representatives from CCDC confirmed in a public service announcement days before Hsieh’s accusations that some seniors reported their ballots taken.
As readers of my column will remember, expected low turnout means each vote will carry more weight than usual. That’s why Chinatown seniors — among the most likely voters — are once again being treated more as political pawns than citizens.
Their hotly contested swing votes could decide the slugfest between Christensen and Peskin.
However, Hsieh’s political ties and the APDC’s campaign contributions make their accusations suspect.
The APDC spent more than $50,000 phone banking for Christensen’s campaign and raised more than $270,000 this election season. Among the top donors are Laurene Powell Jobs, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs’ widow, who gave $10,000 to APDC, as did Steven Kay — an attorney with professional connections to Da Mayor: Willie Brown. Mayor Lee’s campaign gave APDC $25,000, and Lee heavily backs Christensen.
The San Francisco Association of Realtors gave the APDC $6,045, right after dropping a mint to also support Christensen. Mary Jung, a registered lobbyist for the Realtors, is chair of the local Democratic Party as well as a board member of the APDC.
That’s where the APDC got the $107,000 it paid to Hsieh, the man casting the accusations.
Hsieh told me he used that money to buy media to communicate the APDC’s message to Chinese American voters in “a culturally competent manner.” And to that end, he trumpets Christensen’s campaign, along with a range of APDC endorsements.
Hsieh is not waiting for the official investigation. On Wednesday, at Hsieh’s suggestion, the Democratic Party’s local leadership will decide whether to urge the DOE to give a “second chance to vote” to those who feel disenfranchised.
It’s a touchy-feely political move ostensibly to defend vulnerable seniors, who often don’t speak English — a laudable goal. But Arntz told me “there’s no mechanism in the law to allow someone to vote a second ballot once it’s been processed and pulled from the envelope.”
Feasibility isn’t likely a top concern. This controversy seems more about ginning up headlines in the Chinese press to influence voters, rather than protecting anyone.When asked if being paid to trumpet Christensen at all motivated Hsieh’s accusations, he told me essentially, “No.”
“Our city’s fair elections, which are free from fraud are more important than the District 3 race, CCDC and APDC combined,” he said. “It’s a sad day for The City. I feel that when the investigators get to the bottom of this story, it will change San Francisco politics forever.”
He’s right on one count, but wrong on another:
It certainly is a sad day for The City, as the political “usual suspects” yet again jockey for Chinatown voters. But he’s wrong that anything will change: This is just another election season in San Francisco.
On Guard prints the news and raises hell each week. Email him at email@example.com.