Why Hispanics Don’t Have a Larger Political Voice

Nate Cohn, New York Times, June 16, 2014

Hispanic-Americans are growing in number, coveted by the nation’s political parties and deeply in favor of an overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws. Given this combination, why does such an overhaul still seem to be such a long shot in Washington?

One reason is that no demographic group is more marginalized in American elections than Hispanics. Many are ineligible to vote, while those who can vote often do not or are concentrated in noncompetitive districts and states. The dynamic will be particularly strong in this year’s midterms in November, when Hispanic voters will represent a tiny fraction of the electorate in the states and districts critical to the battle for control of Congress.

Hispanics make up about 17 percent of the population of the United States. In the Senate races likely to determine whether Democrats or Republicans control the chamber, Hispanic voters will probably make up less than 3 percent of the electorate.

The explanation for the gap starts with the most basic rules of voter eligibility. People must be over age 18 to vote, and 28 percent of American Hispanics are under 18, compared with 22 percent of non-Hispanics. Voting-age adults must be United States citizens to vote, yet only 69 percent of adult Hispanics are citizens, compared with 96 percent of adult non-Hispanics.

As a result, only 49 percent of Hispanics are eligible to vote, compared with 74 percent of non-Hispanics. Hispanics make up just 11 percent of the voting-eligible population.

Eligible Hispanics are also less likely to vote than other Americans. A big part of the reason is demographic: Hispanics are younger than other Americans, and voters of all racial and ethnic backgrounds become significantly more likely to vote as they age. In 2012, the turnout rate for potential Hispanic voters was 48 percent, compared with 66.2 percent among blacks and 64.1 percent among whites. The lower Hispanic turnout rate is not as significant a factor as eligibility and geography, but it does further reduce the Hispanic share of the electorate, especially in midterm elections.

The power of Hispanic voters is further diluted by geography. Hispanics are disproportionately concentrated in large states, like California, Florida and Texas. Incredibly, Hispanics represent an above average share of the population in only nine of the 50 states. There are very few Hispanic voters in most small states, like Wyoming or the Dakotas, and small states are overrepresented in the political process, thanks to the structure of the Senate. Effectively, the Hispanic share of the eligible Senate electorate is just 7.5 percent.

Finally, Hispanic voters are concentrated in noncompetitive states and districts, diminishing their role in the most important races. This year, Hispanics represent less than 5 percent of eligible voters in nine of the 10 most competitive Senate states, and about 4 percent of eligible voters in those races over all. {snip}

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