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Viewpoint: The Hispanic Electorate
Jessica Leval and Jennifer Marsico, Research Assistants, and Annabelle Burgett, Intern, AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project

December 17, 2008

The Hispanic vote is increasingly referenced as a crucial component of victory in U.S. national elections. Hispanics contributed both to George W. Bush's victory in 2004 as well as Barack Obama's sweeping victory over Senator John McCain this past November. In the aftermath of the election, Republicans are now seeking to rebuild the GOP, and many consider support from Hispanics necessary for the development of a stronger Republican party. Yet, this community still faces many obstacles on the path to gaining its full electoral force.

CNN exit polls indicate that in the 2004 election, George W. Bush received 44 percent of the Hispanic vote compared to John Kerry's 53 percent. This year, exit polls show that Obama beat McCain by a 67 to 31 percent margin among Hispanic voters. Both the Washington Post's Michael Gerson and Democratic pollster Fernand Amandi have noted the crucial shift in the Hispanic vote in battleground states such as Florida, Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico, four states that Bush carried in 2004 and that went for Obama in 2008.

The electoral power of Hispanics has been increasing over the past few election cycles. Project Vote, for example, reports a 16 percent increase in the total number of ballots cast by Hispanics. According to Associated Press exit polls, the Hispanic share of the electorate reached nine percent, up from seven percent in 2004. The non-partisan National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund in conjunction with the polling firm Latino Decisions and Hispanic news company ImpreMedia polled 800 registered Hispanic voters, and found that 15 percent had voted for the first time this past November.

Demographic trends, furthermore, indicate that their electoral power will continue to increase. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that Hispanics accounted for roughly half of America's population increase between 2000 and 2006. Hispanics currently constitute the largest ethno-racial minority population in America. In a 2008 study, the Pew Hispanic Center reported that as of mid-2007, Hispanics made up roughly 15.1 percent of the total U.S. population. Pew predicts that by 2050 the Hispanic population could reach as high as 29 percent.

Historically, voter participation by Hispanics has been disproportionately low compared to the size of their population overall. The Pew Hispanic Center explains (PDF) that Hispanic turnout has lagged behind white turnout by an estimated 13 to 20 percentage points in presidential and midterm elections between 1974 and 2006. The tide, however, may be turning. According to the United States Hispanic Leadership Institute, Hispanics are registering to vote at a rate six times greater than the general population and turning out to vote at a rate five times greater than the electorate as a whole. This increase may be partially the result of successful community-based and non-partisan voter registration and turnout efforts. In this past election cycle, Hispanic organizations such as Voto Latino, Mi Familia Vota and Democracia USA went door-to-door, made phone calls, held forums, and distributed multilingual voter guides to promote Hispanic voter participation. The non-partisan Ya es Hora, Ve y Vota group operated a Spanish-English bilingual hotline to assist voters with language difficulties on Election Day. Spanish language media, including television network Univision, also contributed to Hispanic mobilization efforts by airing public service announcements.

Hispanic voters do, however, still face certain obstacles in the voting process. Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act (1973) requires polling places to provide voting materials and oral assistance in various languages depending on the jurisdiction. Yet often not enough bilingual poll workers are available to assist those with limited English proficiency. On Election Day this year, Spanish-speaking voters protested the lack of bilingual poll workers in Weld County, California.

The lack of adequate bilingual election materials, moreover, has been a persistent issue. In 2005, the Justice Department claimed that the cities of Azusa and Paramount, California failed to fully translate their election materials into Spanish. In the 2008 election, a North Carolina college Spanish teacher filed a complaint with the Avery County Board of Elections claiming that the Spanish instructions posted at her polling place indicated that voters should mark their ballots with an "X" next to their chosen candidates; the English instructions told voters to completely fill in the oval next to their chosen candidates. (Corrected Spanish instructions were ultimately provided.)

New voter identification requirements and registration procedures potentially pose additional problems for Hispanic voters. Under the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), passed in 2002, states have implemented statewide databases that check addresses supplied on registration forms against other sources, including Department of Motor Vehicles and Social Security lists. However, some states will not register new voters or will purge them from their voter rolls if the registration information does not match other sources. In Florida, for example, African-Americans and Hispanics were disproportionately represented in the list of over 12,000 "no-match" individuals released one week prior to the 2008 election. The Brennan Center for Justice also reports that Hispanics made up 39% of blocked voters on the list whose race is known. Some states have also implemented stricter identification requirements since HAVA's passage, requiring the addresses listed on individuals' official identification to match information on voter rolls. The executive director of the NALEO Educational Fund, Arturo Vegas, explained in his congressional testimony in February 2008 that the Hispanic community is particularly mobile and therefore has a more difficult time ensuring that their identification documents reflect their current address than other populations. In 2006, Rutgers University's Eagleton Institute of Politics and Ohio State's Moritz College of Law reported (PDF) that Hispanic voters were 10 percent less likely to vote in states that required non-photo identification compared to states where voters only needed to give their names to vote.

HAVA also requires that all individuals be permitted to at least cast a provisional ballot if their names do not appear on the voter registration list. Specifically, the law requires that "an election official at the polling place shall notify the individual that the individual may cast a provisional ballot in that election." In his testimony, Vargas noted that on Election Day this year, the Ve Y Vota hotline received many calls from Hispanics who were either not offered provisional ballots, or found that poll workers were unfamiliar with them. Because Hispanics are more likely to be required to cast a provisional ballot, an official's failure to provide this option may significantly disenfranchise the Hispanic community.

There is also evidence that identification requirements are applied disproportionately to minority voters, including Hispanics, at the polls through more thorough questioning or asking for identification when none is required. According (PDF) to Harvard professor Stephen Ansolabehere, during the 2006 election, 52 percent of blacks and Hispanics were asked to show identification as compared to 45 percent of whites and other minorities. A 2006 NALEO report (PDF) approximates that 27 percent of respondents claimed to have experienced or observed poll workers engaged in discriminatory voter identification actions.

The Hispanic demographic is becoming increasingly influential in U.S. elections and has been sought after by both major political parties. This greater attention to this demographic will likely lead to further study and awareness about the obstacles the Hispanic community faces and, in turn, improvements in Hispanic access to and participation in elections.

Jessica Leval can be reached at Jennifer Marsico can be reached at

Viewpoint is an occasional feature analyzing various election reform issues.
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