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State Policymakers Need to Respond to Growing Clout of Latino Voters Nationwide

A recent report from the advocacy group America’s Voice highlighted the growing power of Latino voters in the upcoming 2010 elections.  Latino voters played a critical role in 2008 to propel President Obama to victory in several key swing states that previously trended Republican, including Virginia.  Latino voter registration and turnout rates have exploded over the past few years: roughly 10 million voted in the 2008 Presidential election alone, a 2.5 million increase from 2004 and 4 million person increase since 2000.  Latino voter registration grew by over 54% between 2000 and 2008, and turnout grew 64% over the same time period.  

The shifting composition of the electorate nationwide will increasingly affect state legislators and races.  This trend is particularly evident in immigrant ”˜new destination states’ in the South and Southwest, where growing numbers of immigrant residents are expected to translate into new Congressional districts after the 2010 Census.  In response, progressive state leaders can take a few key steps:

  • Take Action on Immigrant Rights, a Defining Issue for Many Latinos:  Immigration was not the number one issue for all Latino voters: like most Americans, the economy remains critical for them.  Nevertheless, immigration reform remains important to a broad majority of Latinos as they make voting decisions. According to a May 2009 poll of Latino voters, 82% felt the issue was important to them and their families. Foreign-born Latinos (many of whom still have friends or family members who are documented residents but aren’t yet US citizens or who are undocumented) often feel comprehensive immigration reform and immigration policy is a top issue.  State leaders can join State Legislators for Progressive Immigration Policy to promote state policies that support immigrants and add their voices to those of other state legislators calling for comprehensive federal immigration reform.
  • Address Other Key Concerns of Latino Voters:  Latino voters need to see progressive state leaders standing up for other key concerns as well, such as health care.  A survey last November found Latino registered voters' top concern was health care reform, with 61% saying the government should ensure that all people have health insurance, even if it means raising taxes.  Addressing core issues for working families is also key to cementing support from Latino voters.
  • Support Latino Voter ParticipationState leaders can respond to increased Latino voter engagement by continuing to protect their voting rights.  State leaders can encourage this trend by introducing and supporting measures to encourage voting such as vote-by-mail, same-day registration and reforms, as well as strengthening civic engagement overall.
  • Support State-Level Policies and Programs that Integrate Immigrant Residents: Funding immigrant integration measures such as expanded ESL classes is critical for immigrant residents to fully participate in their community, yet demand continues to far outweigh supply for free or low-cost ESL classes.  Waiting lists for ESL programs, which often receive some federal funding, remain long nationwide.  English proficiency also translates to better wages for immigrant workers, as they can speak up for their rights at the workplace: one academic study found low-wage workers who moved up one English proficiency level saw a 30% increase in their wages.  
  • Reach Spanish-Dominant Latinos:  Foreign-born Latinos who predominantly speak Spanish are emerging as swing voters, and are a sizeable share of the Latino electorate: 40% were born outside the US and are naturalized US citizens. According to the New Democrat Network, the GOP more than doubled its share of the Latino vote from 1996 to 2004 by prioritizing outreach to Spanish-dominant Latinos.  Both parties are well aware of this dynamic, and continue to step up their outreach: nearly 70% of 2008 immigration-related Presidential campaign ads were in Spanish.  

Raising state voices in support of immigration reform is critical, especially in the wake of Congressional inaction on the issue.  Despite repeated promises from White House and Congressional leaders to enact comprehensive immigration reform during President Obama's first year in office, momentum on comprehensive immigration reform has slowed in recent months.  Yet the current federal vacuum on immigration reform presents an opportunity for states to craft progressive policies that support immigrant integration, such as English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, and protect the rights of immigrant workers. Meanwhile, efforts continue toward comprehensive immigration reform: in an interview last week with Los Angeles’ Spanish-language newspaper La Opinión, US House of Representatives Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi reiterated her commitment to enacting comprehensive immigration reform this year — a message she notably has not broadcast in the mainstream media.  Pelosi noted she recently raised the issue with President Obama, who said he would work with Congress to develop a bill this year. 

Resources:
America's Voice - The Power of the Latino Vote in the 2010 Elections: They Tipped Elections in 2008; Where Will They Be in 2010?
Latino Decisions/UNM RWJF Center/impreMedia - Survey of Latino Registered Voters
Progressive States Network - State Legislators for Progressive Immigration Policy
Progressive States Network - State Immigration Policy to Promote National Change