News Column

El Paso Voters Back Leaders' Vision for City

Nov. 12, 2012

Diana Washington Valdez, El Paso Times, Texas

Experts say the recent general election may signal that generational and cultural changes are under way, including in El Paso, where the turnout rate seems fixed at less than half of the registered voters.

Nationally, Hispanics, African-Americans, women and young people helped to re-elect President Barack Obama, and in various states voters approved measures that in the past were viewed as too controversial to pass, such as same-sex marriage and the legalization of marijuana.

Richard Pineda, a communications professor at the University of Texas at El Paso, said that in El Paso, which is notorious for low voter turnout, those who did cast ballots also voted for change.

For example, El Paso voters overwhelmingly supported

two quality-of-life bond issues with tax implications for residents and a hotel occupancy tax increase for a new baseball stadium in Downtown.

"This reflects a sense of aspirational vision that is being driven by key leaders in the community," said Pineda, whose research focuses on politics, media, popular culture and Latinos. "People are ready for a shift. We're seeing a generational change, and that's also spurring a lot of young people to get involved in politics."

"However, we still have a lot of work ahead of us," Pineda said, "because we have a huge swath of El Pasoans that are not involved or actively engaged."

El Paso County Elections Administrator Javier Chacon said he doesn't expect the percentage of voter

turnout to change much in the future.

"People are leading busy lives, and that seems to be the main reason that people give for not voting," Chacon said. "We've had a pretty set pattern of voter turnout for general elections since 2000. We saw more voters come out in 2008, because the election dynamics were different, and we had big media voting campaigns."

A total of 174,789 El Pasoans (46 percent of registered voters) voted in last week's general election --14,330 fewer voters than in 2008. A total of 189,119 El Pasoans (49 percent) voted in 2008; 173,076 (44 percent) voted in 2004; and 142,704 (42 percent) voted in 2000.

Chacon said El Paso's population grows each year, but many new residents are immigrants who are not eligible to vote until they become U.S. citizens and youths who are not yet 18 years old.

According to the latest U.S. Census figures, El Paso County has a population of 820,790; 29.7 percent of El Pasoans are younger than 18 and 26.9 percent are foreign-born. Chacon said El Paso currently has 376,267 registered voters.

El Paso is not alone in low voter turnout, because Texas also lags behind other states, said Linda Krefting, president of the Texas League of Women Voters, a nonprofit organization that works to increase voter participation.

"The states that have consistently high voter turnout have voter-friendly election procedures, and the Texas Legislature could adopt comparable procedures," Krefting said. "Same day voter registration which allows voters to register on election day is common in states with consistently high voter turnout."

"This year, many individuals who registered to vote at Texas Department of Public Service offices under federal "motor voter" provisions found that their registrations had not been processed," she said. "Texas needs to make sure that voter registration at DPS offices is simplified and registrations are processed appropriately."

Whether it's few or many, those voters who head to the polls are the ones who will determine the future of a community or nation, said Miguel Juarez, a former El Paso community activist, historian and librarian.

"We're at the beginning of a cultural transition in the nation," said Juarez, an archives specialist for the University of North Texas System in Denton. "Latinos in this elected defied the stereotypes that they are apathetic and uninformed. We also saw with the Dream Act immigrants not yet eligible to vote get involved in U.S. politics.

"More young people who supported Obama turned out for this election than in 2008. Things are happening that never happened before, and part of this stems from the younger generation that's coming of age and see things differently than the older generation."

Juarez visits El Paso frequently, and followed the local bond issue initiatives and baseball stadium proposal closely.

"The outcome of the bond issue and baseball stadium ballot measures shows that many El Pasoans want changes even if it results in new taxes," Juarez said.

El Paso also bucks the statewide trend of a state government which is dominated by the Republican Party. In a "red state," El Paso voters continue to vote straight-party Democrat, and elected this year to send an all-Democrat legislative delegation to Austin.

About 81 percent of El Pasoans are Hispanic, and while 57 percent of Texas voters chose Republican Mitt Romney for president, 65.5 percent of El Pasoans voted for Obama.

In a column published by Market Daily News and titled "America has Shifted to the Left and the Culture War is Over," writer Michael Snyder asserts that the United States has moved to the left of the political spectrum.

"The shift to the left is not just reflected in our presidential politics," Snyder said. "In fact, on election day 2012 it was most clearly seen in the results of some of the ballot initiatives and referendums held across the country. For example, prior to 2012, gay marriage had been voted down every single time when it had been put on the ballot in any state. However, on Election Day 2012 gay marriage was made legal by the voters in Maine, Maryland and Washington state. This represented a huge victory for gay marriage advocates."

Dante Chinni, a fellow at American University's Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies in Washington, D.C., cautions against drawing dramatic conclusions from a single election.

"What is different and represents a change is the electorate," Chinni said. "In 2000, 81 percent of the voters were white. In 2012, the white vote was 72 percent. This 9 percent drop over a period of 12 years is substantial. What really surprised me this time is the turnout of the 18- to 29-year-old group -- there was an uptick of 2 points over the turnout in the 2008 election.

Chinni said the Hispanic vote will continue to grow, and Hispanics will become more active politically. He also said that cultural-political change tends to be gradual and incremental.

"We know from past polls that Americans had supported same-sex marriage for a while, and the fact that the ballot measures related to gay marriage passed reflect this view," Chinni said. "A colleague recently pointed that it took 50 years for approval of interracial marriage, and now we have gay marriage."

Finally, the experts agreed that whoever turns out to vote in the next presidential election in four years will depend again on who the candidates are as well as their platforms.



Source: (c)2012 the El Paso Times (El Paso, Texas) Distributed by MCT Information Services


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