It turns out that who isn’t voting may have just as much, or more, to do with who wins an election that who does vote. Certainly that was the case in the recent special election in Orange County to fill the vacated First District Supervisor seat, created when Supervisor Janet Nguyen was elected last November to the California State Senate, vacating her county position.
The Los Angeles Times has done an analysis of the election results in this low-turnout special election in central Orange County, and while the information presented is not necessarily surprising, it is most certainly disappointing–to the extent that higher voter turnout is one indicator of a healthy democratic republic.
The First Supervisorial District is at the heart of Orange County’s “political doughnut”–the doughnut hole being this Republican-plurality county’s Democrat turf. Back in the 1998 the irrepressible Congressman Bob Dornan, the Irish-American firebrand, lost re-election to political unknown Democrat Loretta Sanchez, and since then Central Orange County has produced a lot of Democrat lawmakers.
When filing closed for the special election, the case could be made that Democrat Lou Correa, who had just retired from eight years in the State Senate (after serving on the Board of Supervisors before that) was easily a front-runner. He went into the election not only with higher name identification, but also with a significant financial advantage. The largest city, by far, in the district is Santa Ana, which has an overwhelmingly Hispanic population–and where Correa’s presence on the ballot for decades has made him almost a household word. Yet when all of the votes were counted in what turned out to be a nail-biter of a race, Correa found that he had lost the race by 43 votes to a relatively unknown Vietnamese American, Andrew Do–a Republican, no less–who is Nguyen’s chief of staff.
To understand how this could have happened, it is important to note that while the largest ethnic population within the First District is Hispanic, behind that is the presence of the largest concentration of Vietnamese-American voters anywhere in the United States, centered around an area which is known as Little Saigon.
Then you just have to look at the extraordinary difference in voter turnout in these two different ethnic communities to understand why Andrew Do is now a Supervisor.
The Times notes that “voters in Little Saigon were just about twice as likely to vote than those in Santa Ana,” even though turnout was very low overall in both areas. The Times adds that only 22% of absentee voters in Correa-friendly Santa Ana returned their ballots. Next door in Little Saigon the return-rate for mail-in ballots was 40%–nearly double.
In these low-profile special elections, absentee voting typically makes up the lion’s share of the total vote, and this election was no different, with 84% of the ballots being cast through the mail.
The Times also makes the case that Do’s grassroots effort in turnout out Vietnamese American voters was more intense than the Correa campaign’s efforts with Latinos.
Not addressed in the Times analysis, but also an important factor in the final outcome, was the impact of the supervisors’ decennial redistricting process.
A few years ago, the supervisors consolidated all of Fountain Valley into the First District, thus uniting most of the County’s Vietnamese Americans into a single district–not doubt a decisive factor years later in Do’s razor-thin victory.