News Column

Catalyst For Change

September 2004, HISPANIC BUSINESS Magazine

Jaime Adame

Antonio Gonzales, President SWVRP
Antonio Gonzales, President SWVRP

Aggressive voter registration efforts seek to boost Hispanic turnout at the polls in November by as much as 27 percent in a move that, if successful, could play a deciding factor in this year's race for the White House. More than a dozen groups have launched projects to boost registration across the country, with the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project spearheading two of the largest. These include partnerships with the League of United Latin American Citizens, the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, the Hispanic Federation, the Earth Day Network, the NAACP National Voter Fund, and others. The goal is to have 10 million Hispanics registered to vote by November, with estimates of actual voter turnout ranging from slightly below 7 million to 7.5 million as much as a 27 percent increase from a turnout of 5.9 million in 2000. While showing increases, registration among the fastest-growing sector of the electorate lags that of the general electorate. In 2000, only 35 percent of voting-age Hispanics were registered to vote in the presidential election far less than the 65 percent of all voting-age Americans who registered, according to a report by HispanTelligence, the research division of Hispanic Business. Antonio Gonzalez, president of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, notes that while Hispanic participation by the percentage of registered voters that cast votes in presidential elections continues to lag other electorate segments, "overall participation has improved. When you measure voter participation by examining the trend between presidential elections, the trend in terms of increasing voter registration and voting, voter registration among Hispanics is the best or most well-performing of the three major ethnic groups. So it really depends on which way you measure." That can translate into long-term gains. HispanTelligence analysis of U.S. Census data shows that once registered 78.6 percent of all Hispanics registered to vote in 2000, for example tend to go to the polls. Boosting those numbers, as well as turnout, holds the potential to influence this presidential election and long-term policy decisions. While Hispanic population, purchasing power, and business growth are projected to dramatically increase over the next quarter century, voter registration is projected to increase more slowly. Efforts in particular are focused on states such as New Mexico and Florida, where the Hispanic population has grown dramatically and could swing Electoral College votes. New Mexico, for example, could have 11,000 additional Hispanic voters this fall, and Florida 160,000 new Hispanic voters, according to projections by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund. "We've learned from the last two elections. [Our work] didn't have as much influence in setting policies and priorities because we focused where we traditionally focus on Texas, California , New York, and Illinois. we have a lot more activities going on in other states," says Antonio Gonzalez, president of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project. For the major political parties, some figures from four years ago help explain the high stakes for voter registration. In 2000, Al Gore carried New Mexico by fewer than 400 votes, while President George W. Bush carried Florida by fewer than 600. Both campaigns "are convinced that their showing on election day in 2000 was directly tied to the kind of outreach they did among Hispanic voters," says Adam Segal, director of the Hispanic Voter Project at Johns Hopkins University. The focus on swing states is not perfect, however. "Sixty percent of Americans are not going to be outreached in that strategy," says Marcelo Gaete, senior director of programs for NALEO. And while the focus on winning the presidential post may push candidates and political parties to address issues important to Hispanics this election, it is not enough for Clarissa Martinez DeCastro, director of the Latino Empowerment and Advocacy Project for the National Council of La Raza. "What Latinos need is an electorate expansion strategy," she says. "[The candidates] are not concerned about expanding an electorate unless they need to win." This year, in efforts that complement the more traditional voter-registration drives such as door-to-door visits, some groups are trying to integrate voter registration and participation with Hispanic community-service centers and advocacy groups. For example, Hispanics looking for help with taxes or finding a job might be given a brief explanation about the importance of registering to vote and given the forms to do so. Mr. Gonzalez of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project says the most successful registration drives "are ones where we identify leadership in a given community that is willing to do several things: They are willing to work together, willing to prioritize voting for the next several months." Mr. Gonzalez says this year the project has expanded "to include a lot more activities in 'battleground' states than we've done in the past. We've learned from the last two elections. [Our work] didn't have as much influence in setting policies and priorities of the two major campaigns because we focused where we traditionally focus on Texas, California, New York, and Illinois. We have a lot more activities going on in other states." The Southwest Voter Registration Education Project also includes an online voter registration initiative. In other registration efforts, the Bank of America Charitable Foundation recently funded a toll-free NALEO Education Fund hot line of voting information. The Hispanic Federation is distributing registration forms and also offers a hot line. And the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration launched a nationwide campaign to register Puerto Ricans living in the mainland United States.

GROWING POWER The U.S. Hispanic economy is projected to account for a growing portion of overall economic sectors by 2030, while the voting population is expected to more than double.

projections charts
Source: HispanTelligence projections based on U.S. Census data.
Many leaders hope efforts will be sustained even after November. "I think that one of the things we're trying to overcome is that people think of voter registration and voter engagement as only important in an election year," says NCLR's Ms. Martinez DeCastro. "It can't be something we do only every four years."


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