Geography of the Election: A New Era of Racial Politics


Laura Jean Berger worked on the Congressional Campaign of Assemblyman Van Tran. This is her account of the results.

Energy and free beer flowed through Assemblyman Van Tran's campaign headquarters, the crowd anxiously building with anticipation each time Fox News reported another House seat for the Republicans. Every major network's live trucks crowded the parking lot of the converted Blockbuster video store, their cameras trained on a stage set for a victory speech.

But the crowd would be disappointed tonight. Results had Tran and incumbent Democratic Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez tied early in the evening, but she pulled ahead to a nine-point lead by midnight. And now, almost a week later, the wait is not yet over. While national press has declared Sanchez the winner yet again in central Orange County, California, neither candidate has yet conceded or declared victory.

So why in California's 47th district -- where most have declared Sanchez the winner--will neither candidate make a declaration? Just ask the Orange County Registrar of Voters: the surprise in the ballot box is that there are still approximately 30,000 votes yet to be tallied, as reported by the Orange County Register. In a race where approximately 66,000 ballots cast have been counted thus far, one third of the vote share remains outstanding.

The race could go either way at this point because those ballots yet to be counted are record numbers of both vote by mail and provisional ballots. If you're Loretta Sanchez, you know that provisionals will likely break in your favor due to alleged polling place confusion in heavily Democratic Santa Ana. But if you're Van Tran, you are hoping that the largest Vietnamese community outside Vietnam all decided to vote absentee this year.

The Voice of OC asserts that "history has shown that absentee and provisional votes often make big differences in municipal elections involving large numbers of Vietnamese voters." In this district, it seems that race is playing a substantial role in the election results just as it did during the campaign.

National media attention descended when Sanchez declared on the Spanish television station Univision that the "Vietnamese and the Republicans" were trying to "take this seat..." and also remarked that Tran was very "anti-immigrant." Her comments ignited a firestorm because Tran is, in fact, a Vietnamese immigrant himself. Sanchez was accused of bringing racial divisiveness into the campaign and later offered an apology for her comments once prompted.

While the Vietnamese community in Orange County is certainly cohesive, they are not single-issue voters, as opposed to many Hispanics. OC Weekly columnist Gustavo Arellano stated in an interview with Southern California Public Radio, "All really that matters to the Spanish-language media right now is the question of immigration because that is the biggest question that its readership has...Everything else is secondary." Since Tran has not defined his views on immigration precisely, he is "largely ignored" by Spanish-language media.

Vietnamese voters, on the other hand, share the country's priority on jobs yet also consider how either candidate--Vietnamese or not--would handle policy positions toward Vietnam. Sanchez's work on House Resolution 334 calling for an end to Vietnam's political imprisonment of those who supported Saigon and the South greatly helped her relationship with the Vietnamese community, approximately fifteen percent of the district's residents.

While that number might not seem like much, it's important to note that the Vietnamese turn out at much higher percentages than Hispanics. Hao-Nhien Vu, managing editor of the largest Vietnamese newspaper in the US, ascribes civic involvement with the fact that "they went through so much to get here."

Yet the racial disparity in Orange County plays into a larger statewide picture. Voters in California supported Proposition 20 on Election Day, which gives the power of redistricting state and federal districts to a citizens' committee as opposed to state legislators. California's districts have been compared to "Swiss cheese," but the district bordering the 47th to the north, the 40th, makes some rather interesting jabs around the edges.

The Republican (and Vietnamese) stronghold of Garden Grove has been seemingly attacked by a cookie cutter, while one could argue that isolating predominantly Hispanic Anaheim and Santa Ana in the same district lumps too many Democratic votes together. Both parties are to blame for drawing illogical districts to maintain the status quo. But there’s an even greater national issue growing in this Petri dish.

President Barack Obama's election was seen by many as an advance in the fight against racial politics in the United States. But in light of Sanchez's and Tran's campaigns and supporters, when does cohesiveness cross the line? This district is a prime example of a place where there are more minority residents than whites. Therefore, it's logical that a minority representative would be easily elected.

But which minority?

The answer is different for each voter. Identifying with the electorate has always worked well in politics. Sanchez identifies with the Hispanics while Tran pulls in the Vietnamese. Each has their supporters among Anglos and African-Americans. But even so, the inevitable is that one ethnic group is pitted against the other in a sense, and everyone knows it (and now admits it after Sanchez' aforementioned Univision comments).

The good news? The issue of race is now forced onto the table. Now that it's no longer completely taboo, there's a hope that different ethnic groups can come together and realize the diverse issues they all face. If this can be done, the voters will undoubtedly select the candidate that can best represent them, and that may not be a candidate with whom they identify based on race.

However, this can only happen once an interracial dialogue is established. It won't happen overnight. Members of minority voting blocs will and do integrate into the larger political discussion with time. Only after this is achieved will race become the non-issue that it should be in politics.

As for California's 47th Congressional district, the jury is still out for this year. And in 2012, who knows what the Citizens' Redistricting Committee will change? Hopefully this year is one of the last in which race will play such a deciding role in elections. But that depends on the opening of communication channels between groups. As our country gets more diverse, and complex, we could be witnessing the beginning of a new era of racial politics in America.

Laura Jean Berger is a senior at Chapman University studying Political Science and Communication Studies. A lifelong resident of Glendale, she is an avid classical pianist and a self-diagnosed political junkie.

Photo by Neon Tommy