Although a comparatively small proportion of California's fast-growing Latino community votes, political experts say passage of a new immigration law, movement to the suburbs and other factors may increase participation as the century ends.
Asians, another rapidly increasing population that is under-represented on voter registration polls, may add a more conservative element to the minority political mix if their participation increases, polls indicate.
Those are two of the findings from public opinion polls and interviews with political leaders and grass-roots workers on the political landscape of the state's rapidly changing minorities.
A third finding is that blacks, although they do not approach the population increases of Latinos and Asians, remain much more powerful politically because they register and vote at a higher rate and tend to live in predominantly black neighborhoods while other minorities are more dispersed.
What intrigues political researchers is what will happen when Latinos and Asians realize their political potential.
"What we have seen in the last 12 to 20 years is a (large increase) in the Latino population, an astonishing increase in the Asian population, which is changing the ethnic composition of the state," said Alan Heslop, who heads the Rose Institute of Claremont McKenna College.
But this year, neither group will have major impact.
Despite the arrival of large numbers of Latino and Asian immigrants and a high birth rate among the Latinos already here, the California electorate today has about the same racial makeup it had eight years ago, according to the Los Angeles Times Poll.
Roughly four-fifths of the state's registered voters are white; the rest are equally divided between blacks and Latinos, with a smattering of Asians. Specifically, the figures are Anglo, 81%; Latino, 8%; blacks, 8%; other, 3%. In the 1980 Census, Latinos constituted 19% of the state's population, blacks 8% and Asians 5%.
Among adult Latinos, only four in 10 are registered, compared to three-fourths of the whites and blacks. What this means is that Latinos especially, but also Asians, are significantly under-represented at the polling booth.
'Balance of Power'
Of all the groups, the most impact in the future is expected from Latinos. "The day they get on the registration roles, they're going to be the balance of power," said Republican campaign consultant Stuart K. Spencer.
Caltech Profs. Bruce E. Cain and D. Roderick Kiewit, who have conducted the most thorough public opinion survey of the state's minorities, said the political impact of Latinos will be felt sooner than previously expected if the amnesty provision of the immigration bill becomes law.
Cain, in an interview, said that if Latinos here illegally take advantage of amnesty, "it will accelerate the movement of Latinos into the political process because there will be a whole pool which could think about . . . becoming citizens.
"The second effect is that the Latinos might look a lot like Italians if the flow of immigration is stopped."
Cain said that once immigration from Italy had stopped, the Italian-American community had less contact with its homeland and "became a less distinct political group and began to move out of the Democratic Party."
But, Cain said, naturalization rates will have to increase among Latinos before that happens. The same point was made by Leobardo F. Estrada of the UCLA School of Architecture and Urban Planning, who said, "Naturalization rates among Latinos are at the lowest they have been."
Moving to Suburbs
Estrada expects that Latino political power never will be as great as that of blacks, even if Latino registration increases. The reason is that Latinos tend to move out of the city and into the suburbs.
"If somebody were to ask me what's the most important thing that Latinos can do to improve their voting power, I would have to say, 'Stop suburbanization,' " Estrada said with a smile.
To Heslop, a former Republican political aide, such movement could be good for the GOP.
"The Latino is not filling the expectations of many of those who look to the growth of minority population as adding to the power of the Democratic Party," he said. "The registered Latino is proving to be relatively conservative on a significant range of issues."