Strangely, it's easy to both overestimate and underestimate the potential impact of Hispanic voters on American politics. That's because Latinos will have much less influence on statewide elections than on district races.
As home to 11 million Hispanics, California's experience can serve as a guide to what mass immigration and the high birthrate of first generation Hispanics will eventually mean for much of the rest of America.
Although Hispanics comprise one-third of California's population, they cast merely one-tenth of its vote last November, according to the Los Angeles Times exit poll. In contests for president, senator and governor, a study suggests that the electoral clout of Latinos will continue to lag far behind what their burgeoning share of the population implies.
Paradoxically, however, California shows that Hispanics, despite their relatively low propensity to vote, will become a major force within the House of Representatives and state legislatures. Although Latinos comprised merely 10 percent of California voters in 2002 (down from a high of 14 percent in 1998), Latino politicians now hold 22.5 percent of the seats in each of the two houses of the state Legislature. The main reason for this curious Hispanic over-representation relative to their number of voters is little understood today.
According to the new Census estimate for 2001, there were 37 million Hispanics in the United States, amounting to 13 percent of the national population. Many political commentators have drawn attention to these rapidly growing ranks of Hispanics.
Yet, the much-discussed "Latino domination" of American elections has not yet fully gone through the formality of coming into existence. The Census Bureau's survey of 50,000 households following the 2000 election found that Hispanics made up just 5.4 percent of the electorate, compared to 80.7 percent for whites. At the polls, there were 15 non-Hispanic whites for every Hispanic.
No national figures are available yet for the 2002 election, but patchy state turnout data suggests little growth in the Hispanic vote, or, more likely, a decline. The best-documented evidence is from that well-established L.A. Times exit poll, which found the Hispanic fraction of the voted in California declined from 13 percent in 2000 to 10 percent.
According to a recent study by demographers Jack Citrin and Benjamin Highton of the Public Policy Institute of California, "Latinos participate at lower levels primarily because they are less likely to be citizens and secondarily because many of them lack the socioeconomic resources that boost political interest and participation."
About 46 percent of California Hispanics are not citizens. The study also noted that Hispanics tend to be on average younger, poorer, and less educated, all of which make them less likely to vote.
This low electoral profile will not change as fast as many political pundits assume. The PPIC forecasted, "Although the numbers of Latino and Asian voters will increase in the future, their relative shares of the electorate will not substantially grow unless there are major changes in either their citizenship or turnout rates."
Although non-Hispanic whites made up only 46.7 percent of California's population in 2000, the PPIC expects whites to cast a majority of the votes in California for another four decades. The two experts forecast that in 2040 non-Hispanic whites will still comprise 53 percent of California's electorate. In contrast, Hispanic voters will be only half as important, at 26 percent.
In the rest of the country, whites are likely to hold on to their dominance of the presidential, senatorial, and gubernatorial vote for even longer. Currently, there are no Hispanic U.S. senators and only one governor (Bill Richardson of New Mexico, whose mother is Mexican-American).
On the other hand, Latinos are not underrepresented in the House of Representatives relative to their share of the national vote (5.4 percent in 2000). In the new Congress, the 24 Hispanics make up 5.5 percent of the 435 members.
A leading indicator of future Hispanic national strength is the California Legislature, where Latinos hold more than one-fifth of the seats. This represents well below their one-third of the population, but far above their one-tenth of the vote in 2002. Slightly less impressively, Latinos make up more than one-seventh of California's congressional delegation, with eight of the 53 seats.
A little-discussed quirk in how districts are drawn up will likely help Hispanics gain substantial power in numerous other state legislatures and congressional delegations in decades to come.
One major reason why Hispanics win more district-level elections in California than their vote totals would suggest is that it typically takes fewer votes to elect a Hispanic. That's because there just aren't as many voters in Latino-dominated districts. These areas typically contain high proportions of the ineligible, the young, the poor, and the less educated.
UCLA sociologist Roger Waldinger wrote, "Heavy immigrant densities make the Mexican American districts into rotten boroughs, where only a small proportion of the adult population votes, a situation that does little to encourage electoral competition or mobilization." (The term "rotten borough" is borrowed from 18th century British politics, a time when some Parliamentary districts held only a literal handful of voters.)
For example, in congressional District 30 in the posh Hollywood Hills, where merely 8 percent of the population is Hispanic, veteran Beverly Hills Democrat Henry Waxman won re-election last November in a race in which all the candidates combined drew 184,000 votes. In sharp contrast, in nearby congressional District 31, a 70 percent Hispanic area that includes East L.A., Democrat Xavier Becerra gained another term in a contest in which only 67,000 voters showed up.
Similarly, in beachfront District 46 (17 percent Hispanic), 173,000 voters decided the fate of the surfing Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher. (He won again.) Next door in District 47 (65 percent Hispanic) in gritty northern Orange County, prominent Democratic fundraiser Loretta Sanchez triumphed despite just 68,000 votes being cast.
Overall, the eight California congressional elections won by Latinos averaged 80,000 ballots split among all the hopefuls. In the other 45 races, a mean of 143,000 voters went to the polls. This meant that the average voter in a district that elected a Latino had a 78 percent greater say in choosing a House member than voters in the rest of the state.
Similarly, only 59 percent as many voters showed up in the nine California state Senate races won by Latinos compared to the 11 won by other politicians. In the 18 state assembly districts captured by Hispanics, total turnout was only 64 percent as great as in the other 62 races.
How can these disparities exist when all the districts were made equal in size following the 2000 election? It depends upon how size is measured. The courts have interpreted the principle of "one man one vote" to mean that districts should be equalized not on the number of actual voters or registered voters or citizens or legal residents, but purely on the number of residents of any description. Even illegal aliens are counted.
Regions with lots of undocumented workers, such as Santa Ana, Calif., reap greater representation per voter. Likewise, California is given an extra four or five congressional seats for being home to several million illegal immigrants.
Some "rotten boroughs" are currently represented by non-Hispanics. Conservative Democrat Cal Dooley's 20th District (63 percent Hispanic) in the agricultural Central Valley is home to many farm workers, few of who vote. Only 73,000 ballots were counted there last fall.
In the 35th congressional District in South Central Los Angeles, Hispanic immigrants are slowly squeezing out blacks, who now comprise just 34 percent of the populace. African-Americans, however, still make up the majority of the electorate, so the 96,000 voters gave veteran black radical Maxine Waters a landslide victory.
Fewer votes are required on average to elect a Democrat in California. All eight of its Latino members of the House and 24 of the 27 Hispanic state legislators are Democrats.
In heavily immigrant states, it typically takes fewer votes for a Democrat to win than for a Republican. In the 20 state Senate races in California last year, the Democrats won 13 (nine of which were accounted for by Hispanic Democrats). In the seven districts won by Republicans, an average of 30 percent more total votes were cast.
All this suggests that in the future there will be numerous openings for Hispanic legislators and members of Congress, but Hispanic clout in statewide and presidential elections will be less formidable.