Vietnamese American voters could be the deciding factor in who wins a seat on the Orange County Board of Supervisors.
According to an analysis of mail ballots, Vietnamese American voters had a high turnout in the extremely tight First District race between Democrat Lou Correa, a Democrat, and Andrew Do, a Republican.
A tally of early mail ballots from the independent firm Political Data showed Vietnamese American voters making up almost half of the ballots returned, 46 percent.
This early breakdown hints at a level of engagement that’s unique among Asian American voters, according to UC Riverside political scientist Karthick Ramakrishnan.
“I think what is interesting with the Vietnamese American vote in Orange County is that it goes counter to the stereotype of Asian Americans as generally not involved in politics," he said.
Asian American voters in general don't turn out in large numbers. They participate below the national average, on par with Latinos. According to the same early ballot count in Orange County, Latinos represented only 17 percent of the mail votes.
Ramakrishnan says Vietnamese Americans, who tend to lean right, stand out among Asian American voters for a couple of reasons.
“One, you have a very politicized population," he said, "especially given the refugee crisis and the strong anti-Communist stance among many Vietnamese refugees that ended up coming here.”
Second, he said, and just as important, is their strength in numbers: Vietnamese immigrants have concentrated in places like Orange County and San Jose, creating a sort of power base where their votes can and do influence elections.
Ramakrishnan said the closest comparison among Latinos is Cuban Americans in Miami, a group that also tends to be politically involved. Both came to the U.S. originally for political reasons as refugees - and both are concentrated in certain regions.
"That ends up serving as a kind of resource," Ramakrishnan said. "You have relatively high citizenship rates among these groups, and that is a ready base to try to win elected office."
The dynamics of both groups have shifted somewhat as the first immigrant generation ages and gives way to younger, U.S.-born generations. In the Orange County mail ballot breakdown, 21 percent of the Vietnamese Americans were registered as Republican; 12 percent are registered as Democratic.
The results of the First District race have so far been too close to declare a winner. On Wednesday Do was ahead by just 239 votes out of 46,683 votes cast.