Expectations for Hispanic voter influence temper as registrations lag

Fri, Apr 13, 2012 (2 a.m.)

In early March, Time magazine ran the cover story, “Why Latinos will pick the next president,” on the heels of a report from a national Latino political organization saying the number of Hispanic voters would climb 26 percent in 2012.

Two weeks after the Time article ran, those expectations were snuffed out by a census survey showing Hispanic voter registration, for the first time in at least 40 years, had decreased in the two years after a presidential election. That left soothsayers to temper their expectations and reassess how much influence Hispanic voters would command in 2012.

At the start of the year, numerous media outlets, election strategists and political observers pointed to the growing ranks of Latino voters as a major factor in this year’s elections. The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund issued a report projecting a 26 percent increase in Hispanic voters from 2008 for a total of 12.2 million ballots cast.

Then an analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data released in March showed Hispanic voter registration from 2008 to 2010 had dropped from 11.6 million to 10.9 million, even though the population of eligible Hispanics had increased from 19.5 million to 21.3 million.

For the first time since the 1970s, Latino voter registration did not grow in consecutive nonpresidential cycles.

A report from the William C. Velasquez Institute, which analyzed the census data, projected 10.5 million Latino votes in 2012, about 1 million more than in 2008, but far fewer than the 12 million projected earlier. From the 2004 to 2008, the number of Latino votes cast grew by approximately 2 million.

The data were released around the time another census analysis showed the growth rate of the Hispanic population, especially in boom states such as Nevada that saw above-average development during the early 2000s, had dropped significantly after the recession’s arrival.

Among cities, Las Vegas saw one of the steepest drops, from a peak annual growth rate of 8 percent in 2005-06 to 2.4 percent in 2009-10.

“Hispanic dispersion to ‘new destination’ metropolitan areas and suburbs dropped sharply in the late 2000s. Charlotte, N.C.; Raleigh, N.C.; Atlanta, Provo, and Las Vegas were among the metro areas experiencing the steepest declines in Hispanic growth after 2007 as construction jobs dried up,” a report from the Brookings Institution stated.

The Hispanic population is growing and still primed to be a major factor in this year’s and future elections. The Hispanic population in the United States grew by 43 percent during the past decade, according to census data, rising from 35.3 million in 2000 to 50.5 million in 2010. The increase accounted for more than half of overall U.S. population growth. The National Council for Las Raza estimated that 500,000 Hispanics in the United States would turn 18 every year, and more than 90 percent are eligible to vote.

But the slower growth rate coupled with the population instability caused by high unemployment and the poor economy have retarded the progress of voter registration and civic engagement efforts among Hispanics.

“The census data reflected a challenge that we have,” said Leo Murrieta, Nevada state coordinator for Mi Familia Vota, a civic engagement group. “The people are still out there, maybe they have moved or need to re-register. We are going to do what we’ve always done, which is hit the pavement hard and get them out to vote.”

The National Council for La Raza announced a modest campaign to register 180,000 voters before the 2012 general election, and is focusing on key states such as Nevada, Colorado, Pennsylvania and Florida.

“Some of our biggest challenges to increased participation are the lack of quality candidates and lack of faith in the process,” said Janet Murguia, president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza in a teleconference announcing the campaign. “It is a combination of factors ... Statistics on the makeup of our community show that it is a relatively young community, and young populations across the board have lower political participation. High mobility rates also have a downward effect on participation.”

In Nevada, despite an increase of 17,000 Hispanics eligible to vote from 2008 to 2010, the number of registered Hispanic voters fell from 131,000 to 103,000, according to the census survey. The number may not sound significant, but small margins can make a big difference in a state like Nevada.

“Nevada is a more competitive state, and a smaller Latino population has a bigger impact,” said Matt Barreto, associate professor of political science at University of Washington and a principal at polling firm Latino Decisions, referring to the greater influence of Nevada’s Hispanic electorate as compared to Texas and other states.

In 2004, Republican George W. Bush won Nevada by a 2.6 percentage points. In 2010, Republican Sharron Angle lost the U.S. Senate race to Democrat Harry Reid by 6 points, and the Senate majority leader later tipped his hat to Hispanic voters for delivering the victory.

Fernando Romero, president of Hispanics in Politics and the regional field coordinator for National Council of La Raza, attributed the drop in Hispanic voter registration in Nevada to the recession.

“We lost an enormous amount of construction jobs and we aren’t getting them back,” Romero said. “Obviously that has a lot to do with it. Many construction workers were in unions and were really engaged in the political arena. They did vote, and they participated. Now, many are gone and many are simply disenchanted with the political process and are not participating. Primarily, I think it’s a loss of jobs and people moving out.”

Still, Romero said his expectations for a strong year of Hispanic voter registration have not waned, and he believes there will be a surge in participation as the general election draws closer.

Romero said he was less concerned with projections and more worried about the reluctance of businesses and shopping centers to allow voter registration efforts on their property. While 9.7 million Hispanic citizens voted in 2008, another 7.9 million were eligible to vote but didn’t register to do so, according to the Census Bureau.

“It’s been difficult to get the various businesses that cater to Hispanics, and other businesses for that matter, involved in civic engagement,” Romero said. “They look at voter registration as political activity. ... It really bothers me because some of these businesses make a lot of money on the Hispanic client. They should allow a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization on their property. We don’t bother people; we wait until they are coming out of the business. In previous election years they have been more lenient with organizations such as ours.”

While Romero said he had no theories about being turned away more this year than previously, in other states new laws are having a more tangible effect on voter registration efforts. New restrictions have civic groups in Florida and Texas either pulling out or reducing their goals.

“States like Florida and Texas have imposed very restrictive voter registration laws,” said Dan McSwain, spokesperson for Voto Latino, a group that specializes in registering young people and is using its website as an alternative in Florida. “They make it extremely difficult for nonpartisan organizations to do the basic work that’s a core piece of democracy, registering and educating people about the process.”

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