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Continuity and change: Latinos and the 2010 U.S. Congressional elections

Manuel Orozco and Katherine Scaife

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Photo: Arasmus Photo on flickr
Leaders of the immigration reform movement at a peaceful demonstration in Washington, D.C., May 1, 2010.

The influence of Latinos on the U.S. Congressional election of Nov. 2, 2010 was very similar to previous votes. Latinos showed strong support for Democrats and exhibited low registration and voting. Further, the election race demonstrated Latinos’ lack of a cohesive policy agenda and low political capital. Their participation did not increase substantially despite important contests in some Congressional districts where they form a powerful demographic group. Latinos have yet to translate their strength in numbers into influence on election outcomes, political representation and issues. They continue to lag behind other ethnic groups in their political mobilization and participation.

Looking for strength in numbers 

Historically, Latinos have been under-represented at the polls, a fact that contributes to politicians’ limited interest in currying favor with this demographic group. The number of registered Latino voters has been slowly increasing; in 2008 Latinos represented nine per cent of all voters, against eight per cent in 2004. But this increase is modest considering that the Latino population is growing at an annual rate of 3.9 per cent, much faster than the national average of 0.9 per cent. Hispanic registration and voting levels remain the lowest of all U.S. citizens. Less than 50 per cent of Latino citizens went to the polls in the 2008 presidential election, while 32 per cent voted in the 2006 Congressional election —a similar result to this year’s contest. With such a low turnout, it can be expected that politicians will continue to pay only lip service to Latinos. Increased political participation requires greater public policy outreach to motivate this group to vote. 

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Latinos’ political capital at the state and federal levels remains low, making it difficult to promote their agenda, including greater participation at the ballot box. The number of Latinos in positions of political authority grew by 24 per cent between 1996 and 2007, across all levels of office. In 2007, there was 34 per cent more Latinos found in state legislatures; yet representation among statewide officials has not improved compared with their representation figures of 1996. At the federal level, more Latinos are taking on federal government positions, particularly young ones assuming positions with an international focus. Notwithstanding, the greater presence of Latinos in positions of political power is still far from matching their growing population and potential political capital.

Latinos are not a monolithic voting bloc 

Putting Latinos’ low electoral participation and their under-representation in politics aside, the fact that this demographic group lacks a cohesive policy agenda means that it is unlikely to impact national elections. The group comprises immigrants from an entire continent as well as people of Hispanic background born in the U.S. As such, it is a divided community with wide-ranging interests driven by nationality, place of birth, experiences with poverty and location in the U.S. However, some generalizations still stand. On average, Latinos face higher poverty rates and earn incomes lower than the national median and lower that any other ethnic group. During the recession, Latino unemployment has not declined as much relative to other groups, but it is high nevertheless: it stood at 12.2 per cent in September 2009 and at 11.9 per cent a year later. This number represents a nearly four per cent increase from 2008 when unemployment was 8.8 per cent among Latinos. The group’s incomes have dropped and it remains vulnerable because of crime in neighbourhoods where many Latinos live. Latino children often attend public schools with limited resources and have high dropout rates; they are also more likely to be victims of youth gangs in their inner city neighbourhoods. 

Given these socio-economic strains, it is not surprising that a recent Pew Hispanic Center report stated that education, jobs and health care were the most important issues to Latinos; immigration was only the fifth most important issue although half of Latinos are immigrants and form 27 per cent of all Latino eligible voters. Amidst national division over immigration policy marked by strong anti-immigrant sentiment, the poor Latino mobilization around this issue weakens any prospect of reform. Latino social movements have limited resources, are divided and thus lack the capacity to influence political agendas and galvanize a unified movement. They are more likely to use their resources to serve their communities and influence local and state agendas rather than to take action on national issues. In sum, the variety of issues that Latinos find important, and the disjuncture between their actual interests and public perception of their interests, make it more difficult for this group to promote a common policy agenda. 

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Greater incorporation for greater strength

Although Latinos are the largest minority in the U.S. with a population that has grown from 35 to 45 million in 10 years, their electoral participation remains low and stood at 31 per cent in 2008. Expectations that they will become an influential political group are yet to be met. Perhaps it is not surprising that Latinos feel alienated politically, given the widespread anti-immigrant rhetoric. The punitive anti-immigration law passed in Arizona earlier this year reinforces this sentiment. A 2010 Pew Hispanic Center survey found that an impressive 42 per cent of Latinos feel that neither Democrats nor Republicans defend the interests of their community. While the current political atmosphere has proven successful in demoralizing Latinos, it could ultimately galvanize them to respond to the attacks through political channels.

In addition, as the Latino population grows, politicians will inevitably need to acknowledge the group’s interests. In states such as Georgia and South Carolina where additional Congressional seats were gained following the 2010 census, politicians will owe much to their Latino constituencies. Reversely, states that are losing seats would have lost more had it not been for their increasing Latino populations. Even if Latino voter turnout lags behind population growth, politicians will ultimately have to take this growing demographic into account. Finally, improved outreach to Latino communities and efforts to integrate them into the political process could improve voter mobilization and turnout. Educating Latinos on voting rights and the electoral process, and on ways in which government can work for them, will be essential to ensure that Latinos will increase their impact in future elections.

Manuel Orozco, Senior Associate and Director of Remittances and Development at the Inter-American Dialogue, has conducted extensive research, policy analysis and advocacy on issues relating to global flows of remittances, and migration and development worldwide. Katherine Scaife is an Associate with the Remittances and Development program, and has supported Latino community organizing efforts in the U.S. and abroad.


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