You are on page 1of 3

Latino Civic Participation Reshapes Political Climate Tomás Alberto Avila 10/01/02 If the story of America is one in which rising

minority groups eventually seize control of local political office, many urban communities may well be their latest chapter. Expanding Latino population and rising Latino voter registration are expected to give many Latino candidates in this year’s election their best showing in years. As the political climate reshapes, the Latino population is showing a renewed commitment to demonstrating its political strength. The remarkable growth of the population and the significance of the Latino electorate has undergone intense scrutiny and become the subject of fiery debate across the nation. Policymakers and the public alike have voiced their need for a better understanding of the Latino community and the significance and actuality of the Latino vote. The nation's Latino population grew by nearly 60 percent in the last decade, to 35.3 million, roughly equaling blacks as the country's largest minority. As Latinos strive to translate these numbers into the kind of political influence that blacks have achieved, the battle is on among Democrats and Republicans to court this still largely untapped and disparate voting group. This unprecedented growth will increase Hispanics’ political clout in the next years and will make an impact on the Congressional Races. Latino groups will be able to state their needs and policy maker will eagerly listen. It often used to be assumed that Latinos were an easy target for aspiring politicians hoping to score political points by attacking minorities, as was shown by Pete Wilson in California and Joseph Paolino here in Rhode Island back in 1996. While Latinos are fully 13% of the United States population, conventional wisdom holds that their voter participation is low because many are not citizens. However, such thinking is dead wrong Latinos will be the pivotal vote in the country’s future elections and any politician betting against this will pay for it at the polls. While one quarter of the Latino population is not yet naturalized, applications for citizenship among the Latino population are at record levels. Nationally, there has been a 100% increase in applications for citizenship. As a result of the amnesty program begun in 1986, 3 million more Latinos living in the United States are now eligible for citizenship. The statistics are clear more Latinos will be eligible to vote in elections than ever before. The Latino community, threatened by the slew of anti-Latino legislation proposed in Congress and in state capitols across the country in the mid 90’s heightened awareness of the importance of voting on their futures. We know that the only way to stop the political attacks on our community is to make our presence felt at the ballot box.

Latino organizations across the country have mobilized to educate and register more than 1 million new Latino voters. Voter registration projects are being conducted in Latino communities all over the United States as we speak. In fact, here in Rhode Island, the RI Latino Civic Fund has unveiled its effort to encourage Latinos to register and vote. It is clear; the Latino vote will play a crucial role in the country’s future elections and will continue to be more important year after year. As a growing young electorate registering to vote at record rates, Latinos have attracted political attention from Democrats and Republicans alike. The parties spotlight certain issues in hopes of attracting Latinos, who tend to be conservative on some issues (such as abortion) and liberal on others (such as government programs). But rather than simply voting for one party or another, Latino voters like to keep their options open. Indeed, many Republicans are pinning hopes on Latino conservatism to help Mr. Bush overcome Democratic voter registration drives to win Latino support in 2002 and 2004. There's no question the Republicans need a greater share of Latino voters to stay in the majority. More importantly to the politicians, Latinos vote, and with their numbers climbing and their willingness to cross party lines, Latinos could tip the scales in critical races and be the margin of victory. Last spring's Census report showing that Latinos have officially replaced blacks as America's largest minority group may hold implications for political change far beyond urban communities. In some cases, Latinos are expected to make gains in cities long dominated by white officeholders. In multi-ethnic cities such as Providence, they may fight for seats held by other minorities. Politicians need to expand their notion of civil rights and make sure Latinos are included in any future race initiatives. They need to take these voters and potential voters more seriously. While shortsighted political strategists still dismiss the population as mostly young and nonvoting, the truth is that, at a time when voter participation rates for most groups have flattened, the rate for Latinos has risen in states like California and Rhode Island. They need to stop resting on their laurels and aggressively compete for Latino support. This is a community where a little attention and respect goes a long way. Politicians have to do better than simply adopting a philosophy of recruiting Latinos as unpaid volunteers in their campaigns. The country is undergoing a period of profound change. It is estimated that by the year 2010, Latinos will account for one in every three American. By 2050, Latinos will comprise well over a quarter of the United States population. The Latino population will continue to grow in both numbers and levels of civic participation.

Latinos are naturalizing at much higher rates than in the past and they are becoming active in local elections. Increasingly, Latinos are becoming the margin of victory factor in electing candidates and changing policy. Despite the new surge of Latino participation in elections there is still an incredible amount to learn about the Latino vote. Latino voters tend to be younger, poorer, and less educated than the general population. The implications of this for the country remains to be seen. This is a new kind of voter, one we are not used to analyzing. As the 2002 elections come to a conclusion, Latinos are settling into a position where we have worked very, very hard to be. We want to be in a place where our vote is not taken for granted by Democrats or Republicans, where candidates consciously reach out to Latino voters and work hard to convince us that they offer the better alternative to advance our interests, and that political parties think twice about pursuing policies that will alienate Latinos. This is essentially well on our way. where we want to be, and I think we are

Tomás Alberto Avila, 61 Tappan Street Providence, RI 02908 Phone 401-274-5204 Email: avilatomas@hotmail.com