To Build a More Perfect Union, Enfranchise Latinos

With the 2010 election behind us and the 2012 contest beyond our focus, this is an opportune time to think about how to improve the quality of our democracy.

For the good of our country, we must abandon partisan shenanigans that are essentially techniques intended to impede or reduce African American and Latino turnout. We also have to pay attention to how systemic inequalities affect minority voters’ ability to fully participate. Together, these practices bias elections in favor of "white voters," reduce the size of the electorate, and deny minorities unfettered access to the polls.

African Americans are forced to climb over the same hurdles to voting that have been around for generations. These include not delivering sufficient ballots to African American precincts to enable all potential voters to cast ballots, and closing these polling places ahead of schedule or while voters are still lined up to vote. Laws that require voters to identify themselves with state-approved photo IDs also disproportionately impact African Americans and other low income voters, because research indicates they are less likely to have such identification.

Like African Americans, Latinos are mostly working class and are less likely than Anglos to have state-issued IDs. But more importantly, in the current anti-immigrant environment, Latinos worry about having their status questioned, whether they're native born citizens, naturalized citizens or legal resident aliens (LRA). That concern extends into polling places, where those who do not speak English fluently are legitimately concerned that they may be harassed when they go to vote. Naturalized citizens in particular might also be worried that, despite their best efforts, they may not be legitimately registered because of the failings of specific registrars. Republican-run campaigns, especially if they are in Spanish, warning potential voters of the severe consequences of voting illegally fuel the fears of Latino voters.

How we manage naturalization policy also plays a major role in determining  the size of the Latino electorate.  Although the naturalization rates of Mexican and other Latin American immigrants have increased in recent years, they remain in the 30 percent range, the lowest for any group.  A major reason for this is that the cost of naturalizing continues to increase.  From 1990 to 2007 the cost increased from $90 to $675, which is not refunded if the naturalization application is rejected. 

The consequences of low naturalization rates for Latinos are severe. If Latinos who are legal residents, but not citizens, had all voted in 2010, they could probably have determined the results of every major election in Arizona, Florida, Illinois and New Jersey.  Although naturalization policies were not designed to have the effect of suppressing Latino participation, there can be no doubt that this unintended consequence has the same effect that closing polling places early has on African Americans.

Strategically it is in the interest of both parties to deal with these issues. For Democrats, it is a way to reach out to their core constituents.  Republicans benefit because it will provide a much needed bridge to Latino voters which could guarantee their long term electoral success. More significantly, the nation would gain because it would continue our historical commitment to institutionalizing democratic rule.

Rodolfo de la Garza, a Columbia University professor of Political Science, has studied immigration, political attitudes and voting for over 30 years. He directed the first national political survey of Latinos and has authored, co-authored and edited 18 books and more than 100 scholarly articles and reports on foreign policy, immigration and political attitudes and behavior.