Can Cindy Chavez catch up in San Jose mayor’s race?
Cindy Chavez, a San Jose mayoral candidate, speaks to supporters at her election night party in Willow Glen. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

    With 90% of ballots counted by Tuesday afternoon, San Jose mayoral candidate Matt Mahan now leads opponent Cindy Chavez by 6,351 votes.

    As of election week, there were roughly 356,071 outstanding ballots in San Jose, though it’s highly unlikely all of them will be returned. The county mailed 524,698 ballots to registered voters in San Jose and 168,627 were received by Wednesday night, according to PDI, a voter data and campaign software company.

    County officials say it’s difficult to pinpoint how many votes may come in for the San Jose mayor’s race between Chavez, a county supervisor, and Mahan, a San Jose councilmember.

    And with every new batch of election results tallied thus far, Mahan has only widened his lead over Chavez. Voter turnout is estimated at 55% to 65%.

    “In my experience, when there’s a gap like this, it doesn’t usually change as more votes come in. But according to the registrar, there’s still almost half the votes to be counted,” Terry Christensen, a retired San Jose State political science professor, told San José Spotlight on Nov. 10.

    When asked if Chavez can catch up, Christensen said “there’s a possibility.”

    “But I really think it’s an outside chance,” he added.

    Chavez isn’t quitting yet. She told San José Spotlight late Wednesday she’s waiting for every ballot to be tallied.

    “It was a spirited campaign, and it’s critically important that every vote is counted,” Chavez said. “While we don’t yet know the outcome of this race, my  focus remains on representing my community on the Board of Supervisors.”

    Mahan thanked his supporters on social media Thursday morning. Neither candidate has conceded or declared victory.

    “We’ve had an edge in every count released so far, including mail-in and election day ballots,” Mahan said. “The trajectory is looking good, but there are still about half of the votes to be counted.”

    Early vote-by-mail ballots and those cast at polling centers on Election Day have been counted as of Wednesday night, according to the elections office, while last-minute mail-in ballots, those dropped off on Tuesday and provisional ballots are still being counted.

    A closer look

    To understand what’s happening in this week’s election and how a political newcomer like Mahan with two years on the San Jose City Council could beat out a two-decade politician like Chavez, one can look at history.

    It traces back to voter turnout, especially in the city’s east side. Midterms are known to have lower turnout without an exciting top-of-the-ticket presidential race to draw voters. The 2020 presidential election, for example, had historic turnout levels of nearly 85% across Santa Clara County.

    The disparity is why advocates championed a measure to move San Jose’s mayoral elections to presidential years, promising at least 10,000 more ballots cast. Voters approved that measure in June, and whoever wins the mayor’s race this year must seek reelection in 2024 when turnout is expected to rise.

    Chavez’s potential defeat this year has remnants of the 2014 San Jose mayoral election—the last time the city elected a new mayor. In that matchup, Mayor Sam Liccardo narrowly defeated then-Supervisor Dave Cortese, who’s now a state senator. Liccardo’s narrow win was secured by a resounding victory in West San Jose, a more affluent area of the city with higher voter turnout historically. Cortese won handily in East San Jose, but because of low voter turnout, he lost to Liccardo by just 2,750 votes. Countywide, turnout was only 50% in the 2014 election.

    Chavez supporters hoped history would not repeat itself this year. In the June primary, Chavez flipped west side districts won by Liccardo eight years ago, such as in downtown, South Willow Glen in District 6 and Stevens Creek in District 1. And unlike the 2014 race, which was split down San Jose’s ideological business-versus-labor lines, Chavez plucked support from the business community despite her significant labor ties. She snagged support from the San Francisco 49ers, former Bloom Energy executive Carl Guardino and former San Jose Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce leader Jim Cunneen, cutting into Mahan’s expected base. Special interest groups spent $3.4 million to support Chavez and $1.7 million to support Mahan.

    But with low voter turnout in San Jose’s east side, that may not be enough.

    Mahan’s campaign also turned out more voters on Election Day. According to county data, voters cast 10,406 ballots for Mahan on Tuesday—compared to 6,648 votes for Chavez. Mahan also had an advantage with early mail-in ballots, with 61,088 votes. Chavez received 60,080 early mail-in ballots.

    By the numbers

    The lowest ballot returns so far are in East San Jose districts, which have higher concentrations of minorities and people of color. Those are voters likely to cast ballots for more progressive candidates like Chavez. As of Wednesday night, Districts 5 and 7, both in the heart of East San Jose, had a turnout of 25% and 26%, respectively.

    But in more affluent, west and south side districts—those won handily by moderate, business-backed leaders like Liccardo—the percentage of ballots returned is more than 10% higher. In Districts 6, 9 and 10 which encompass Willow Glen, Cambrian and Almaden and Blossom Valley, the turnout is 38%, according to PDI.

    “Turnout was down a little bit (this election), which probably hurt Chavez,” Christensen said. He added the disparity in voter turnout between the east and west sides is not surprising for San Jose. “It’s typical of what we have seen in the past: higher turnout in west side and lower turnout in east side.”

    Returns by San Jose council district as of Wednesday night:

    District 1—34%
    Ballots mailed: 49,173
    Received: 16,957

    District 2—29%
    Ballots mailed: 51,393
    Received: 14,930

    District 3—28%
    Ballots mailed: 43,814
    Received: 12,085

    District 4—31%
    Ballots mailed: 48,443
    Received: 14,922

    District 5—25%
    Ballots mailed: 46,645
    Received: 11,617

    District 6—38%
    Ballots mailed: 55,772
    Received: 21,332

    District 7—26%
    Ballots mailed: 46,435
    Received: 12,030

    District 8—31%
    Ballots mailed: 64,213
    Received: 19,921

    District 9—38%
    Ballots mailed: 56,491
    Received: 21,193

    District 10—38%
    Ballots mailed: 62,319
    Received: 23,640

    Contact Ramona Giwargis at [email protected] or follow @RamonaGiwargis on Twitter. Contact Joseph Geha at [email protected] or @josephgeha16 on Twitter. Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter.

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