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At the Precinct: A Tale of 2 Cities

REPUBLICAN REIGN. Orange County conservatives and the pursuit of power . THIRD OF FIVE PARTS


By the time the sun comes up on Precinct 53093 on Newport Beach's Lido Isle, the line of people waiting to vote is already 10 deep.

"We get people who come in their wheelchairs to vote," said Barbara Scholl Iltis, the inspector at the Newport Beach precinct.

A few miles inland, at Santa Ana's Precinct 68094, Imogene Sancho tells a different story. She's been a precinct captain there for 14 years, and says the voters don't turn up like they should.

"We have a few in the morning, a few more in the afternoon, and then a few more in the evening," Sancho said. "They trickle in."

The tale of the two precincts goes a long way in explaining the politics of Orange County. Who votes and who doesn't is as predictable as who wins the elections.

In short: The rich vote. The poor don't. The Republicans win. The Democrats lose.

In Orange County, the affluent and the educated register early and vote often, and they tend to vote Republican.

People with less money and less education tend to be Democrats, but they neither register nor vote anywhere near as often as the Republicans.

The result is a county the GOP likes to brag about: Not one Democrat holds countywide elected office.

The same trends are at work across California and the nation, where experts say voting patterns increasingly parallel income and education. In Orange County, one of America's most Republican areas, the trends are more pronounced.

"Orange County, with its high income and high education levels, is quintessentially Republican," said John Petrocik, a professor at UCLA's Center for the Study of Society and Politics. "It will probably remain Republican for a long time."

A comparison of Newport Beach, the most Republican city in the county, and Santa Ana, the most Democratic, illustrates how the GOP dominates local politics.

With a population of 71,000, Newport Beach is among the wealthiest and best educated cities in the country. According to the 1990 census, the typical household had an income of $81,929. Nearly half of the people older than 18 have a bachelor's or a professional degree. The typical home was worth $500,000.

Newport Beach also harbors an extraordinary level of citizen involvement. Nearly 80% of those eligible to vote are registered, and two-thirds of them are Republican. A typical election draws 2 out of every 3 voters to the polls.

Rena Godshall exemplifies political activism in the city. A former educator and mother of two, Godshall is immediate past president of the Balboa Bay Republican Women Federated, third vice president of the Orange County Republican Women Federated, a former member of the Republican Central Committee and a member of the 400 Club, a fund-raising organization. She has worked Republican phone banks, walked precincts, registered voters and campaigned for candidates.

And she always votes.

"I've probably missed one election in my life," she said.

Godshall, a USC graduate who describes herself as middle class, says she is motivated by a particular set of values, like justice and truth. But she explains Newport Beach's political activism in economic terms. People vote, she says, to protect their interests.

"The driving factor is the dollar sign," Godshall said. "When you get down to the nitty-gritty, economics is the basis for civic activity."

Experts agree, saying that political participation tends to rise along with income and education levels.

"The key variable is education," said Petrocik of UCLA. "The more educated a person, the more likely he is to vote and be registered."

Santa Ana, with a population of 300,000, is a markedly different city than Newport Beach. And it shows on election day.

According to the 1990 census, Santa Ana had a median household income of $35,162--half of Newport Beach's. The typical home is worth $184,600--about 60% less than one in Newport Beach. More than half of the people age 18 or older don't have a high school diploma. More than 50,000 people live in poverty.

Political participation in Santa Ana isn't what it is in Newport Beach, either. Less than a third of those old enough to vote are registered. A majority of those who register do so as Democrats, but a typical election brings out just more than half the registered voters.

One reason for the low level of political participation is the low level of citizenship. According to the census, more than a third of the population--123,000--were not citizens in 1990. They are not eligible to vote. By comparison, fewer than 1 out of 20 Newport residents is a noncitizen.

Fernando Castro, a legal immigrant and Santa Ana resident, has been in the United States for 12 years. He has yet to become a citizen and so isn't registered to vote.

He hopes that will change soon, but he says he is skeptical of politics.

"Most people are not interested in politics," said Castro, who is out of work these days. "They feel that the people running the government are not representing them."

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