How did your neighborhood vote? Ballot data for Orange County reveals curious shifts, splits
Some minds changed. Some communities switched. Some ballots were split. A precinct-level exploration of county voting records offers a glimpse of an unusual election.
By BROOKE STAGGS | firstname.lastname@example.org, IAN WHEELER | email@example.com and ALICIA ROBINSON | firstname.lastname@example.org | Orange County RegisterPUBLISHED: November 13, 2020 at 5:30 p.m. | UPDATED: November 15, 2020 at 10:23 a.m.
Over the past month, more people turned out to vote in Orange County than in any election in more than a half century.
With old trends upended by the coronavirus pandemic and political rhetoric, more voters submitted their ballots via drop box than by any other voting method.
And while reliably blue neighborhoods in Santa Ana and Irvine strongly favored President-elect Joe Biden, President Donald Trump flipped Little Saigon this year, which in 2016 gravitated toward Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
While final numbers are expected to be certified in December, a precinct-level analysis of the preliminary totals offers insight into how local voting patterns have changed, where some residents left ballots blank and when they did something increasingly rare in American politics — split their tickets.
The vote for president
Across the county, 54% of voters chose for Biden while 44% picked Trump. Another 2% voted for third-party candidates.
This election, the county was diced into 1,795 precincts, many with hundreds or thousands of registered voters and others with as few as zero.https://public.tableau.com/views/OCgeneralelex2016-2020map/Dashboard1?:embed=y&amp;amp;:display_count=yes&amp;amp;publish=yes&amp;amp;:toolbar=no&amp;amp;:showVizHome=no
While many neighborhoods showed a presidential preference that mirrored the overall county numbers, most were at least somewhat lopsided. In all, some four in ten of all active precincts showed a difference of 10 percentage points or less between Biden and Trump, while more than half (55%) showed a bigger gap.
If you pull away the tiniest precincts, where just a few votes were cast, Biden is most popular in the neighborhoods around UC Irvine, which include student and faculty housing. In those, Biden won around 9 out of 10 votes out of about 2,300 ballots cast for president.
Trump’s support in Orange County was more scattered.
While the outgoing president got 100% of the vote in a small horse country precinct in Orange Park Acres, where all 14 voters chose him, and 11 out of 12 votes cast in a precinct that touches Newport Beach’s Back Bay, the most Trump-friendly standard precincts weren’t quite as supportive. For example, in the voting zone that includes Fashion Island, where 2,232 ballots were cast for president, Trump took about 65% of the vote.
The data also showed this: In some parts of Orange County, voters changed their minds about Trump.
Four years ago, Clinton led strongly over Trump in many neighborhoods of Santa Ana and Little Saigon. This election, while many Santa Ana precincts still favored Biden, the share of votes that went to Trump grew. And in much of Little Saigon, centered in Westminster, voters that once liked Clinton outright favored Trump this time around.
Conversely, voters in some parts of Mission Viejo and other South County areas who in ’16 liked went to Biden this year.
Looking at total votes by city, Villa Park, Yorba Linda and Newport Beach, the first, second and third most Republican cities by party registration, were, in that order, Trump’s strongest supporters.
However, the same wasn’t true for Biden. Voter registration shows that Santa Ana, Stanton and Anaheim are the county’s top three Democrat cities, but Biden drew his biggest vote shares in Santa Ana, Irvine and Laguna Beach.
How we cast ballots
The March primary was the first time a ballot was mailed to ever registered voter, and the first time the county opened multi-day vote centers and placed drop boxes around the county to collect mail ballots.
Though Orange County Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley couldn’t have anticipated the coronavirus when he began pushing to update the county’s voting system in 2017, the changes that started in March came in handy during the general election, allowing anyone who chose to cast a ballot from home.https://flo.uri.sh/visualisation/4333315/embed
Kelley said it’s hard to tell how much the pandemic influenced voters’ behavior because the high turnout for the Nov. 3 election included some younger voters who may simply have been energized to vote early. But he said, “We did hear from a lot of voters that they were thankful that they did have the opportunity to vote through the mail because of COVID.”
Another sign of things to come: the term “vote by mail” ballots might not be 100% accurate anymore. More people ultimately returned their Nov. 3 ballots via county drop boxes (about 583,000) than sent them by the postal service (about 512,000), while another group (about 195,000) brought completed mail ballots to vote centers during the last five days they were open.
The last week before Election Day, the registrar’s data shows a clear drop-off in voters using USPS and a spike in use of drop boxes. This came despite some confusion over unofficial drop boxes placed by the California Republican Party, and online chatter about whether drop boxes were secure. Kelley said there were no broad problems related to any voting method.
Changes in how voters cast their ballots also appears to have changed how results were reported, upending conventional wisdom from prior election cycles.
In previous Orange County elections, ballots counted on election night included votes cast early in the mail-in period and in person — a voting block that typically leaned Republican. But ballots counted and reported after Election Day tended to favor Democrats.
This year, for reasons ranging from fears of the postal service being slow to spread of coronavirus, the voting patterns seemed to shift. Democrats mailed their ballots in early and Republicans voted on Election Day. That meant the first vote counts announced favored Democrats, while the next round of vote counts shifted to Republicans. And as later mail-in votes and provisional ballots have been counted, the Democrat tilt hasn’t been pronounced, with many Republican candidates making gains as final ballots are tallied.
Kelley said he expects use of mail ballots to continue to grow, though many voters may opt not to return them through the post office. The 1,000-pound metal ballot drop boxes were permanently installed and will remain in place for future elections.
Historic voter turnout
Orange County posted high voter turnout in this election, shattering the notable 2016 number and on track to tie with turnout last seen in 1968.
As of Friday, Nov. 13, county turnout was 86.6%, with 1.53 million ballots cast from a pool of 1.77 million registered voters.
That’s significantly higher than statewide turnout, which as of Friday was at 75.3%. Both figures will inch up even as late mail-in and provisional ballots are tallied, with more than 1 million ballots still being processed across the state as of Thursday night.
In the 2016 election, voter turnout was at 80.7% in Orange County, with 1.2 million ballots cast from 1.5 million registered voters. That marked the county’s highest election participation rate in four decades — O.C. turnout was 67.3% in 2012, 72.6% in 2008 and 73.2% in 2004.
The county’s all-time turnout record is 90%, hit in 1960 and again in 1964.
Heading into this election, Kelley had predicted perhaps an 80% turnout given the enthusiasm on both sides of the aisle. His office doubled its scanning and automation capacity over the past six months so they’d be ready, with O.C. counting ballots at a significantly faster rate than neighboring counties.
Ballots partially complete
Most people who vote regularly have at one time or another “undervoted,” meaning they’ve left some races or measures blank, whether by mistake, as a protest against the available choices, or because they didn’t know enough about the candidates or measures to decide.
Some Orange County voters failed to vote in certain contests, but on top-of-the-ticket choices most people had their minds made up. The presidential race appeared to have the lowest rate of undervoting of anything on the ballot, with fewer than 1% of voters not picking a candidate, according to the registrar’s data.
That’s a change from four years ago, said Michael Alvarez, a Caltech political science professor who studies elections and voting. His research found that in the 2016 general election there was a national jump in voters who passed on casting a vote for president, with Republicans often unwilling to pull the lever for Trump or Clinton.
This year, most county voters also made their wishes known in congressional and state assembly races, and on statewide initiatives and a few local measures only about 5% of ballots cast left those options blank.
“Most likely, when you see an undervote, it’s because people don’t know the choices,” Alvarez said.
Because California ballots are often quite long, he added, there’s an increasing tendency to “roll off,” or quit filling in boxes, the farther down a voter gets.
Voters split tickets
There’s also evidence that some Orange County voters split their tickets, casting votes for Democrats and Republicans on the same ballots.
Though split-ticket voting was common as recently as the late 1970s, it’s become rare as politics have become more polarized.
It’s tough to definitively identify ticket splitting without seeing actual ballots, since other factors can come into play. But in a majority of O.C. congressional districts there were thousands more ballots cast for Biden than for Trump, while tighter margins — or even reversed partisan results — were seen in House contests, with little evidence of ballot drop-off between those races.
The biggest discrepancy was in the local portion of the 39th House District, which Includes northern Orange County cities from Buena Park to Anaheim Hills. There, Biden had 51% of the vote Friday while Democratic incumbent Rep. Gil Cisneros had 47%. Meanwhile, in the same area, Trump had 45% of the vote while Republican congressional contender Young Kim had 51%.
Even after accounting for third-party presidential candidates and other factors, the results indicate thousands of people voted Biden for president and Kim for Congress.
The only congressional district where it appears voters may have split their tickets the other way was the 46th District, which includes Anaheim, Santa Ana and parts of Orange. There, Democratic incumbent Rep. Lou Correa earned a higher percentage of votes than Biden, while Correa’s Republican competitor received a lower slice of the vote than Trump. That suggests several thousand CA-46 residents — who in the March primary backed Democrat Bernie Sanders for president — voted for Correa and Trump.
Kevin Wallsten, political science professor at Cal State Long Beach, said most people still vote the party line. “It is also obvious, however, that there is an anti-Trump/never-Trump/save-democracy constituency in the Republican Party that probably voted for Biden as a protest to Trump but wanted to check the Democratic Party more broadly by voting for conservative candidates down ballot.”
Wallsten doesn’t expect such ticket splitting to be a trend, however.
“Once Trump is off the ballot,” he said, “many Republicans will probably ‘return home.’”