Despite an unprecedented get-out-the-vote campaign, Latino voters in Orange County once again failed to turn out in numbers comparable to non-Latinos--possibly dashing the hopes of several Latino candidates in Tuesday's election.
Loretta Sanchez and Lou Correa, who depended on a heavy Latino vote, said they were disappointed by the low turnout and are trying to figure out what happened.
"We were very optimistic. I thought we did the right things," said Correa, who ran in the 69th Assembly District against incumbent Jim Morrissey and lost by about 1,500 votes. "I don't know what happened, which voters stayed home, why we didn't win. We'll have to wait and see what the numbers are."
Sanchez, who still held out hope of a slim victory from uncounted absentee ballots, ran an intense voter drive with about 450 volunteers knocking on doors and calling potential voters on election day.
"We thought we needed at least 100,000 voters to come out, and it turns out we'll reach maybe 95,000," she said Wednesday afternoon, as she stood 233 votes behind incumbent Robert K. Dornan in the 46th Congressional District.
"But you have to keep in mind the turnout was low overall. That was a national trend, a state trend, something we really could not affect. And to be in the running with less than our minimum threshold is pretty remarkable," she said.
A preliminary breakdown of precincts in the congressional district shows those with large Latino populations had about a 40% turnout on average, while in precincts with low Latino populations, about 60% of registered voters cast ballots.
The low voter turnout in the Latino community was discouraging coming after a year of citizenship and voter registration drives, and predictions by community activists that the county's growing Latino population would finally make its political mark.
But organizers of voter registration drives are looking for a silver lining pointed to the progress made over the last decade.
"I don't find [the number of Latinos voting] disappointing," said Jess Araujo, president of Latin American Voters of America, a group that encourages registration and voting by Latinos.
"I've been doing this a long time, and it used to be a lot worse," he said. "My expectations weren't as high as a lot of people. What's clear is that [the Latino vote] is growing, it's verifiable and it's irreversible."
Indeed, many factors influence turnout figures, and comparing Latino to non-Latino voters may show only part of the picture, said Carol Uhlaner, a political science professor at UC Irvine.
Uhlaner said new citizens tend to vote at a lower rate than U.S.-born voters, and energetic voter registration activists may have signed up people who really weren't motivated to vote. She also said Latino voters, who tend to be more transient than non-Latinos, might have moved from their precincts, thus deflating the turnout figures. And many Latino registered voters are young, falling into the traditionally low participatory 18 to 25 age range, she said.
"This year, I would have anticipated lower [percentage] turnout among Latinos voters," she said. However, the number of voters may be higher this year simply because so many more Latinos registered to vote, she said.
John Palacio, who coordinated voter registration programs in Orange County for the Southwest Voter Registration Project, said when final numbers are released, he expects the Latino vote will turn out to be substantially higher this year than it was in 1992.
"Latino voter registration has increased by double digits every year. It's increasing, but these are new voters. They're just learning how the process works. There's still a lot of education to do. But the fact that the races were close is an indication that Latino voters did come out this year," he said.
Sanchez's campaign chief Wylie A. Aitken said strategists never expected Latinos to turn out in the same ratio as non-Latinos, but they hoped to increase their participation by at least 2 percentage points. If Sanchez pulls off a slim victory surprise, he said, the voter drive did what it was supposed to do.
"Obviously, we moved low-propensity Hispanic voters," said Aitken, who also chairs the fund-raising Orange County Democratic Foundation. "The question is, did we move them enough?"
Despite concerns that Latino voters would be intimidated at the polls by anti-immigrant groups, complaints were minimal.
Ruben Smith, an attorney monitoring election day for the League of United Latin American Citizens, said he documented one case of voter intimidation by a caller who claimed to be a federal immigration agent. The caller, who left a message on a Latina's answering machine, allegedly warned her not to vote.
"We're in the process of documenting incidents now," Smith said. "At this point, we don't know how widespread the problem was."
In Santa Ana, first-time voter Raul Moreno, who walked precincts on election day for local school board candidate Nativo V. Lopez, said he noted "a lot of sadness today. The people look sad, but with the optimism that they voted and they did what they could."
Moreno, a mechanic's assistant at El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, said he thought the close races would motivate new citizen voters to participate more in the next election.
"Little by little, we have to educate the people," said Moreno, who became a citizen in March after living in the United States 20 years. "Some still are incredulous. They think it's not possible that they can really vote and be counted. In Mexico, unions force people to vote for their candidates. There is no respect for the individual. Here, we have that respect but also a lot of publicity with bad information."
Also contributing to this report was Dick Lewis, an independent voting analyst working with The Times.