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Analysis: Hispanic voting strength mixed

By STEVE SAILER, UPI National Correspondent

LOS ANGELES, Sept. 26 (UPI) -- Few ideas have become more engrained in the conventional political wisdom than that Hispanics now dominate California's electorate and will play a decisive role in the Oct. 7 gubernatorial recall election.

There is no question the long-term trend is in that direction, but whether this Hispanic surge has actually gone through the formality of taking place is open to question. The evidence is mixed, at best, which bodes well for the two main Republican candidates, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tom McClintock, in the race to replace Gov. Gray Davis if he is recalled.

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The Census Bureau reported that Latinos made up 34 percent of California's residents in 2002.

The Achilles' heel of Hispanic voting power, however, has always been turnout. According to a 2002 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."

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Slightly less than half of California Hispanics are not citizens. The study also pointed out that Hispanics tend to be on average younger, poorer and less educated, all of which make them less likely to vote.

In the 1994 governor's race, 12.8 percent of California's Latino residents voted, according to a Census Bureau phone survey conducted right after the election. (In contrast, 41.4 percent of non-Hispanics voted.) By 1998, this had risen to 14.8 percent.

The Census survey for 2002 has not been released, but Hispanic participation was likely down from 1998. Hispanics comprise about 16 percent of California's registered voters, but in last November's gubernatorial election they cast 10 percent of the votes, according to the Los Angeles Times' exit poll. That was down from 13 percent in 1998.

Nor will Latinos' electoral profile grow as fast in coming decades 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 47 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 PPIC report authors forecast that in 2040 non-Hispanic whites will comprise 53 percent of California's electorate. Hispanic voters will only cast half as many ballots, at 26 percent of the total.

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So, in statewide elections, the political power of Hispanics is unlikely to match their raw numbers of residents for many decades to come.

On the other hand, California's Latino citizens are already over-represented in both houses of the State legislature. Although Latinos make up less than 20 percent of California's voting age citizens, and cast about 10 percent of the vote in 2002, Hispanics won 22.5 percent of each chamber of the legislature. (Among California's Hispanic legislators, Democrats outnumber Republicans by a ratio of 8-to-1.)

A little-understood quirk in how districts are drawn up will likely help Hispanics gain substantial power in numerous other state legislatures and congressional delegations in the near future.

Hispanics win more district-level elections in California than their citizenship or vote totals would imply because it typically takes fewer votes to elect a Hispanic legislator. There just aren't as many voters in Latino-dominated districts, which typically include high proportions of the ineligible.

California districts are drawn based on an interpretation of 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 voting-age residents of any description; even illegal aliens are counted. Thus, districts with lots of undocumented workers and legal aliens garner greater representation per voter.

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UCLA sociologist Roger Waldinger observed, "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" comes from 18th-century British politics, a time when some Parliamentary districts notoriously held but a literal handful of voters.)

The rotten borough effect is also visible in California's congressional elections. For example, in the luxurious Hollywood Hills, in congressional District 30 where 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 distinct 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 67,000 voters showed up.

This interpretation of the law that creates Hispanic rotten boroughs is not without its critics. In the majority opinion of the 1998 7th Circuit federal case "Barnett vs. City of Chicago," Judge Richard J. Posner ruled, "We think that citizen voting-age population is the basis for determining equality of voting power that best comports with the policy of the (Voting Rights) statute. ... The dignity and very concept of citizenship are diluted if non-citizens are allowed to vote either directly or by the conferral of additional voting power on citizens believed to have a community of interest with the non-citizens."

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That decision applies only to three Midwestern states, however. The Supreme Court has yet to rule definitively on the issue.

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