June 2, 2000
By James E. Garcia
It would be the largest number of Latino votes ever cast in a U.S. presidential election: six million.
The number could go higher still. Led by the efforts of the U.S. Hispanic Leadership Institute and the Southwest Voter Registration Project, Latino groups and activists across the country are mounting "Latino Vote 2000," a drive to register Hispanic voters and get them to the polls.
The Southwest Voter Registration Project alone will be launching up to 150 get-out-the-vote drives throughout the Southwest in the coming months. The Hispanic Leadership Institute will be pushing its own campaigns throughout much of the rest of the nation.
Election Day turnout by Latino voters might well decide countless local and state races, as well as the presidency and control of the House of Representatives. Raising the stakes even more is the prediction that Latinos in unprecedented numbers may shift their support from Democratic to Republican candidates.
With Republicans holding just a six-seat majority in the House, lawmakers are realizing just how critical the Latino vote could be. The nature of that slim margin was clarified by information released recently by the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute.
The think-tank showed that in three Los Angeles-area congressional districts, each candidate's victory margin in 1998 was smaller than the number of registered Latino voters who did not cast a ballot. Higher Latino turnout could have changed the outcomes.
In one instance, Rep. James Rogan, a Republican, won reelection by 6,800 voters, though 21,000 registered Latino voters didn't cast a ballot, according to Matt Barreto, a Tomas Rivera researcher.
This election, things could be different. Community leaders believe their effort will get out the Latino vote. Proof, they say, is in the success of Latino participation in the Census. While all the data hasn't been compiled, officials note that Latino response to the Census was better than expected.
The growth in Latino voter registration already has been striking. Juan Andrade, head of the U.S. Hispanic Leadership Institute, says the number of registered Latino voters nationwide increased by 164 percent from 1976 to 1996, but just 31 percent in the general population.
In the 1996 general election, about 5 million Latinos voted, said Angela Acosta, a spokeswoman for the Southwest Voter Registration Project. Most of them voted Democrat and helped to reelect President Clinton in his race against Republican nominee Bob Dole.
Four years later, experts think as many as 1 million new Hispanic voters will go to the polls, though no one can predict if a majority will pick Al Gore or George W. Bush. Recent polls show the candidates in a tight race among Hispanics, though Bush has pulled slightly ahead among voters overall.
As the major parties do their best to coax Latinos to pick their respective candidates, the voter registration groups have a less partisan objective: just getting Latinos to vote.
"I think the challenge this year will be to keep Latino voters voting," said Acosta, explaining that their largely successful efforts have led to hundreds of Hispanic candidates winning elections.
Latino voter registration efforts got an unexpected boost in the mid- and late-1990s, by a wave of so-called anti-Latino legislative initiatives, said Russell Jauregui, an attorney in Pasadena, Calif. and former Southwest Voter organizer.
He cited the sharp conservative shift in Congress on welfare and immigration legislation and California's Propositions 209, targeting affirmative action, and Proposition 227, which retooled bilingual education.
As a result, hundreds of thousands of new Latino voters-many of whom had only just become naturalized citizens-were inspired to vote for Clinton's reelection in 1996. He won more than 70 percent of the Latino vote that year.
This year, however, there is no "negative force" driving Latinos to the polls, said Andrade, and that has voter registration groups worried.
"We need another Pete Wilson," jokes Andrade, referring to the former California governor who led the push to pass Proposition 187. "We need to be beat up a little bit to get us into the fight."
(Garcia is editor-in-chief of "Politico magazine", a monthly magazine and e-letter focusing on U.S. Latino politics. E-mail email@example.com or visit www.politicomagazine.com.)