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The Hispanic Gap

Yes, the Hispanic population is rising. But voter participation is something else.


In this photo taken Sunday Sept. 18, 2011, people watch a musical performance at the Fiesta del Pueblo festival in Raleigh, N.C.   Operatives in both parties are paying attention to voter participation rates as much as rising population.(AP Photo/Jim R. Bounds)

Turns out, it really is the economy. Americans have voted with their pocket books, or with their cynical view toward Washington, for the last three election cycles. But the ramifications of the worst recession since the Depression has altered more than our mood -- it's changing the very makeup of the electorate itself.

The virtually unprecedented migration between states that kicked off the 2000s slowed dramatically during the recession. The collapse of the housing bubble tied more Americans to their homes while the promise of jobs in a new city dried up. When migration picked up again, it was less-affluent Americans who moved to find employment, many of whom had lost their homes to foreclosure or their jobs to recession.


That change in migration patterns has had two repercussions that will last far into the next decade. The recession means some states will send smaller delegations to Washington and the expected surge in Hispanic participation might not materialize as soon as expected.

Even as the Hispanic population has boomed, the rate of Hispanic voter-participation has not kept pace. The Census Bureau estimates there are 31.8 million Hispanics over 18 years old in the U.S., 21.3 million of whom are citizens. Hispanic population grew by 15.2 million over the last decade, accounting for more than half the nation's total population growth during those 10 years, the Census Bureau reported. But only 10.9 million -- a paltry 51.6 percent -- are registered to vote.

That's far fewer than the 62.8 percent of black Americans and 68.2 percent of non-Hispanic whites who are registered to vote, according to the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey. And consider the ramifications: The Census Bureau reports there are at least 6 million Hispanics who said they are not registered to vote. That's more than half the margin by which President Obama beat John McCain in 2008.


The number of registered Hispanic voters has actually fallen, from 11.6 million in 2008 to 10.9 million in 2010. The William C. Velasquez Institute, based in San Antonio, shows the number of Hispanic voters has actually dropped in 11 states over the last two years, including in battlegrounds like Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Colorado.

The recession "hits blacks and Latinos and the lower middle-class people first," Antonio Gonzalez, who heads the Velasquez Institute, told the Houston Chronicle. "When people lose their jobs or homes, they usually have to move elsewhere. When you move, you have to re-register, and we suspect that didn't happen in 2009-10. 

"The law of unintended consequences is at work here," Gonzalez told the Chronicle. "This administration, like the last one, didn't have an answer for home foreclosures. The unintended consequence is a dampening of Latino voter turnout."

Minorities have been harder-hit by the recession than whites. While the national unemployment rate stands at 8.3 percent, it's much higher for blacks (15.6 percent) and Hispanics (12.5 percent).


The smaller number of registrants has led to a drop in the Hispanic share of the electorate; Hispanics made up 9 percent of the electorate in 2008 and 8 percent in 2010. Minorities tend to turn out at lower rates in midterm elections than they do in presidential elections, but the drop at a time when the Hispanic population is booming should trouble Democrats whose fortunes depend on rising Hispanic registration and turnout. In 2010, the Democratic National Committee spent tens of millions of dollars on turnout among Hispanic voters in key states. Those voters were key to electing Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado and reelecting Nevada’s Harry Reid. This year, Democrats need a similar surge to make up for losses among white voters.

Meanwhile, the recession has had a significant impact on the way Americans move around within the country. Population changes early in the decade suggested some states would see changes in the size of their House delegations. Some demographers believed Oregon was in line to receive a new seat, based on migration to the Portland area and its suburbs. Instead, the extra seat in the Pacific Northwest went to Washington state. Minnesota, by contrast, was seen as a likely candidate to have its delegation reduced by one, but instead the state kept all of its seats. Projections showed Texas likely to receive just a single seat, but faster-than-expected growth means its delegation will increase by four.

The economic recession altered the way Americans view government. It has also changed both the makeup of the electorate and the delegations that head to Congress. There's little either party can do to influence reapportionment, but it's clear Democrats need to continue a robust investment in building the Hispanic electorate. So far, their efforts have not borne lasting fruit.

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