Forget Mañana: Making the Latino Vote Count Today

Why don’t Latinos have more clout? Their increasing population suggests they could regularly influence elections across the Southwest as well as in Illinois and Florida. When elections are tight because Anglo votes are divided, they can even swing states like Indiana and North Carolina which they may have done in 2008. That is the conclusion pundits first reached after the 1980 census documented their rapid growth. Every census since has reinforced the claim that this continued trend,  combined with geographic dispersion, has made them a key electoral force.

Despite their large numbers, however, Latinos are only slightly more likely to be electorally influential today than they were thirty years ago. Except for their key roles in Colorado in 2006 and in President Obama’s victory in Florida, they have had virtually no impact on any gubernatorial, senatorial or presidential elections from 1960-2008. 

Why? The major reason is that neither party has attempted to mobilize Latinos. Because Latino are relatively young, uneducated and hold low paying jobs, they are likely to be electorally unengaged. Rather than target get out the vote campaigns to get them to the polls, the Democrats have engaged in “taco politics" —holding festive gatherings with ample amounts of beer, food and music in key election years rather than build lasting links and convince Latinos that the party has no long term interest in their well-being. Republican outreach has had even worse effects. GOP candidates have run on platforms that have included anti-Latino planks such as opposition to bilingualism, attacks on farm-workers and immigrants in general, and opposition to affirmative action programs that benefit the Latino working class, which is the majority of the population. Both parties, in sum, have shown that they have little real interest in Latino voters.

Exacerbating the effects of this disinterest has been the failure of Latino leaders and organizations to mobilize voters. Until relatively recently, Latino organizations focused on voter registration because they assumed that, once registered, Latinos would vote. Unfortunately, while increasing registration did increase voters, Latino turnout rates continued to lag. In 2008 they trailed Anglo and African American turnout rates by over 16 percent and 15 percent respectively.  

Latino civic groups, unions and the Democratic Party are finally investing get out the vote campaigns. Maximizing the potential of the Latino electorate remains a formidable challenge, however, because it includes a large number of naturalized citizens who seem to need special attention if they are to be mobilized.

To be effective, these campaigns must overcome the dampening impact of Latino demographics. The surest step in that direction is for states with large Latino populations to enact same day registration and voting which could increase turnout by at least 10 percent. Latino state legislators in California tried but failed to enact this policy. Given that Latinos are now an essential part of the Democratic coalition, they should be able to pressure the Democratic Party in all states to pass such legislation.

Until turnout is increased, Latino influence will continue to be the promise of mañana. Given the historical lack of interest parties have shown in the Latino vote, Latinos must rely less on the parties and more on themselves to increase their turnout and influence. 

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.