Orange County Seal

By Emily Foxhall, Doug Smith and Anh Do
March 27, 2015

On paper, the race for Orange County supervisor seemed to be Lou Correa’s to win.

A former Democratic legislator who had served in both the state Assembly and Senate, Correa was a familiar and respected figure in Santa Ana, a city big enough to easily carry the race.

But when the final votes were tallied, a little-known Vietnamese American Republican won the race by 43 votes.

The upset marked a political earthquake in central Orange County, an ethnically diverse area dominated by Latinos in Santa Ana and Asian Americans in the Little Saigon area. It’s the only part of Orange County where Democrats hold a voter registration advantage over Republicans.

But a Los Angeles Times analysis of election results shows how Republicans can still win because Asian American voter turnout is so much higher than Latino turnout.

The outcome, the analysis found, turned on the high number of Santa Ana voters who failed to return the absentee ballots that had been mailed to them.

In the core of Santa Ana, where voting heavily favored Correa, only 22% of the absentee voters got around to returning their ballots, far below the state and county’s 50% return rate for absentee ballots in the 2014 general election. The unreturned ballots represented tens of thousands of votes.

Andrew Do, by contrast, got a big boost because more than 40% of the absentee voters in Little Saigon returned their ballots.

The special election swung nearly entirely on mail-in ballots, which made up about 84% of the total vote.

Democrats have been making dramatic inroads in the heart of the county since the mid-1990s, when Loretta Sanchez ousted prominent conservative Bob Dornan in a congressional race.

But the area is far from monolithic.

Santa Ana is a dense city of 330,000 residents. More than three-quarters are Latino, and less than a third are registered voters. It is solidly Democrat.

Little Saigon sprawls across parts of Santa Ana, Garden Grove, Fountain Valley and Westminster, representing the largest Vietnamese business and cultural district in America. The area has traditionally leaned to the right.

An analysis of the election shows voters tended to cast ballots along ethnic lines. In Santa Ana, 60% of the votes went to Correa. In one precinct, more than 80% voted for him.

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