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Latino Clout at Polls Lagging, Study Says

Though the ethnic group is booming in the U.S., its percentage of voters is found to be much smaller than that of whites or blacks.

June 28, 2005|Nicole Gaouette | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — When Latino voters propelled Antonio Villaraigosa into the Los Angeles mayor's office last month, the victory was widely celebrated as a seismic indication that "Latino power" was finally coming into its own.

But a study of census data and voting surveys released Monday suggests the reality might be different.

Although the Latino population has surged throughout the United States, those numerical increases are not resulting in a corresponding growth in voter turnout. On the contrary, eligible Latino voters still turn out in significantly smaller numbers than other ethnic groups.

Latinos accounted for half the total population growth in the U.S. from 2000 to 2004, but made up 10% of new voters in November, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan research organization in Washington.

Where they account for a high proportion of the population, as in Los Angeles, Latino voters can carry a favored candidate like Villaraigosa to victory.

But nationwide, the gap between the Latino population and its political clout remains wide and is getting wider, the Pew study found.

"This report doesn't say Hispanic voting power isn't growing," said Roberto Suro, director of the Pew Hispanic Center. "It's just not growing at nearly the magnitude of the population."

The Pew study analyzed data from the recently released Census Bureau survey of November 2004 along with exit polls from the presidential election that month.

Pew's researchers also used the new data to provide an answer to a lingering debate over Latino support for President Bush in the election.

It was widely reported that national exit poll data showed Latino support for the president as high as 44%, though some surveys had put the figure lower.

The Pew study found that about 40% of Latino voters supported Bush but that the Latino support for Bush had increased, especially among Protestants.

"It's particularly startling," says Pew's Richard Fry.

"It doesn't necessarily show any long-term alignment, but [Bush's] support did increase across several segments," he said.

The gap between total population numbers and voter turnout was reflected in the 2004 presidential election. Age, eligibility and participation rates all played a part.

Between Bush's first presidential victory in 2000 and his reelection in 2004, the Latino population grew by 5.7 million -- to 41.3 million nationwide. Of the 5.7 million, 2.1 million were eligible to vote, and of these, 1.4 million entered a voting booth in November.

Pew researchers broke down the 5.7 million figure to show that 30% were too young to vote. Another 33% were not citizens. But among those who were citizens and eligible to vote, a lesser percentage of Latinos went to the polls on election day 2004 than either whites or African Americans.

About 39% of all Latinos in the U.S. were eligible to vote in 2004, compared with 76% of whites and 65% of African Americans.

Of those eligible, 47% of Latinos voted, compared with 67% of eligible whites and 60% of African Americans.

The relative youth of the Latino population and the large number who are not citizens will prolong the gap between the overall number of Latinos living in the U.S. and their political impact, the study said.

Latino groups objected to the findings as downgrading their political importance. "Our barriers are naturalization and registration. Our numbers continue to increase significantly," said Michael Bustamante, spokesman for the William C. Velasquez Institute, a think tank affiliated with the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project.

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