When Janet Nguyen was elected to the state Senate last November, it was immediately clear that the special election to replace her on the Board of Supervisors would essentially boil down to a contest between Orange County’s Latino and Vietnamese communities.
And that’s exactly what transpired in the First District race, with Nguyen protégé and Westminster resident Andrew Do eking out a 43-vote victory over Santa Ana’s Latino standard-bearer Lou Correa, which Correa is now challenging based on what he calls “voting irregularities” in Vietnamese communities.
But should this race — which, if the outcome remains the same, means that the board will go at least a decade without a Latino representative — have happened at all?
Latino activists, as well as at least one objective observer, are asking that question and raising the possibility that Latinos could have a case under the federal Voting Rights Act, which protects certain minority communities from discriminatory electoral systems.
They point to the county’s redistricting in 2011, which added thousands more Vietnamese voters to the First District and ensured that this traditionally high turn-out and heavily Republican community would have a significantly better shot of getting its candidate elected.
“Generally, you have essentially two protected classes, two groups that have voting rights act concerns, and unfortunately in this district you have both of them having competing claims,” said Political Data, Inc. Vice President Paul Mitchell.
The key question in a Voting Rights Act case is whether the supervisors could have created a district that includes a simple majority of citizen voting age Latinos. If they could have, but didn’t, and racially polarized voting can be proven, then the initial criteria for a Voting Rights Act case has been met.
Latino activists say they have a strong case.
“They’re going to have a hard time explaining the criteria,” Art Montez, longtime Latino activist, said regarding the lines drawn in 2011. “What commonality did they have?”
In response, local Democratic political consultant Claudio Gallegos has offered up a new compromise by drawing a map that he says creates a heavily Asian district and a primarily Latino district side-by-side.
Commission Rejected a Santa Ana-Anaheim District
While members of the Latino political class were largely silent on the 2011 redistricting, some Latino activists were outraged when the Board of Supervisors’ redistricting commission rejected maps they submitted that would have created a Santa Ana-Anaheim district encompassing the bulk of the Latino community in Central County.
“You have just trashed the U.S. Constitution and the [federal] Voting Rights Act,” Zeke Hernandez, president of the Santa Ana League of United Latin American Citizens, told the committee. He accused the committee of basing its decision on “protection of incumbents,” all of whom were Republicans.
Longtime Latino activist Art Montez would later go on to say that it was a “total mutilation of the [first] district.”
In the end, supervisors adopted a map that divided the largely Democratic Latino vote between the First and Fourth districts. The mostly Republican Vietnamese community residing in Westminster and Garden Grove, where Do lives, was included in the First District.
Then, at the last minute, they attached a slice of Fountain Valley to the First District, thereby adding thousands more Asian and Republican voters to the district.
At the time, only Supervisor John Moorlach voted against the districts map, calling it a clear case of “gerrymandering” after he lost part of Fountain Valley from his own district.
Yet, the First District that emerged from the redistricting still includes a lot more Latinos than Asians.
But the Latino community in Santa Ana is also disproportionately young. A comparison of the district’s citizen voting-age population in 2011 shows it was around 29 percent for Asians and 35 percent for Latinos, according to a map drawn on healthycity.org and provided by Gallegos. Suddenly the district appears more evenly split between the two ethnic groups.
In hindsight, that Fountain Valley add-on could have meant the difference in getting Do elected.
Former Supervisor Bill Campbell, who voted for the map, said supervisors didn’t consider the Vietnamese-Latino dynamic when they approved the lines. He said they were more focused on other criteria, like keeping cities whole instead of splitting them between districts.
Campbell also said that the activists should be more focused on turning out Latino voters. According to the most recent data from Political Data inc., Asian votes in the special election were outpacing Latinos 3 to 1.
“I think that’s really what they should focus on rather than trying to argue about the redistricting,” Campbell said.
But the Voting Rights Act is not concerned with get-out-the-vote efforts, said Justin Levitt, a Loyola Law School professor and expert on redistricting. Rather, it is focused on whether the decision to split the Latino vote was part of a larger pattern of attempts to make it difficult for Latinos to be fairly represented among elected offices.
It’s not an exact science, Levitt notes.
“You can think of this not as a set of formulaic, algebraic requirements,” Levitt said of the law. “Do we think that not giving this power amounts to either causing or perpetuating past discrimination?”
A Two Districts Solution
According to Gallegos, the Voting Rights Act doesn’t require a district for the Vietnamese community in the west end of the First District, even though Asian Americans are specifically protected under the law.
This is because the Vietnamese population doesn’t meet the law’s size and compactness test. There’s no way to create a 50 percent plus one Asian majority district that includes roughly the same number of people as the other four supervisorial districts, Gallegos says.
Therein lies another wrinkle. Should Latinos have a Voting Rights Act case – it could mean the end of a supervisorial seat for Little Saigon.
But Gallegos says he has drawn a map that offers up a reasonable compromise. It includes a Santa Ana-Anaheim Latino district, and also an Asian district that extends from Little Saigon and up into Buena Park, La Palma and Cypress to include other Asian communities.
It’s not a perfect solution. There are big cultural and linguistic differences between Asian communities farther north and the primarily Vietnamese residents of Little Saigon. But Gallegos says it’s better than the current situation.
“Two Supervisor districts can reasonably be created that encompasses the bulk of the Latino and Asian communities of Orange County. This would allow them greater power to elect the Supervisor of their choice,” Gallegos said.
Dzung Do, managing editor and politics reporter at the Vietnamese language newspaper Nguoi Viet Daily News, said Gallegos’ two-districts solution sounds like a good idea in theory, but probably doesn’t have much of a chance.
And that’s because getting a seat at the table during the districting process requires minority communities to push for representation, Do said, something that Latinos by and large didn’t do.
“The minority community, they never think that’s important… these minority communities have to fight for a seat,” Do said. “So [Latinos] lose, of course. And that’s a fair game, right?”
Gallegos, himself a Latino, and other activists acknowledge that new lines wouldn’t address the persistent problem of low Latino voter turnout, and they agree with Campbell and Dzung Do that in the big picture it’s participation that matters most.
“The candidates are in front of you, it’s just a matter of exercising your vote,” Hernandez said. “In the longer term our own community has to address it.”
Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter: @adamelmahrek