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Associated Press

AP Analysis: Hispanics Slow To Vote


August 25, 2001
Copyright © 2001 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.

UNION CITY, N.J. (AP) - Egidio Rivera's long journey from his native Colombia has brought him to the edge of American democracy, to a place where he watches but doesn't participate.

In the 14 years since he immigrated, Rivera has married and started a family in Jersey City, landed a job with an airline catering service and earned his U.S. citizenship.

Thanks to television, he's learned enough about politics to spot Rep. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., campaigning with Democratic gubernatorial nominee Jim McGreevey along Union City's crowded Bergenline Avenue.

But his participation ends there.

"I don't vote," Rivera said, hesitating and looking to his wife for help. Ana Rivera chimes in. "We don't know where we have to go to vote. We've never done it before."

The Riveras are hardly alone among Hispanic-Americans, the nation's fastest growing ethnic group, according to an Associated Press computer analysis of registration and voting data in more than 700 predominantly Hispanic precincts in 10 states.

Only one of every four voting age adults in predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods voted in last year's presidential election, significantly below the national rate of 51 percent.

In California, just 22 percent of the voting age population in heavily Hispanic precincts cast ballots last year, according to the AP analysis, and less than 20 percent did so in New Mexico and Illinois.

Even in hotly contested Florida, the turnout in nearly 100 predominantly Hispanic precincts was only 32 percent, the analysis found.

"It's a problem across the board and certainly it will make it more difficult for us to obtain political power if people don't participate," said Juan A. Figueroa, president of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Still, Figueroa said, the 59 percent growth in the Hispanic population documented by the Census during the 1990s "makes it an unstoppable fact that Latinos will have their rightful place at the table."

Both political parties are keenly aware of the Hispanic potential to change the political landscape. Republicans and Democrats are aggressively courting Hispanics for the 2002 congressional elections and the 2004 presidential race.

But roadblocks remain.

Millions of Hispanics aren't eligible to vote because they're not citizens. Some, like Silvea Silva, 30, of West New York, N.J., have started down the road to citizenship, only to be thwarted by language barriers or unscrupulous operators.

Silva, who immigrated from El Salvador 16 years ago and has been a legal resident for six years, said she gave a man $200 two years ago to help her obtain her citizenship.

"I put in my application and I don't know what happened," she said, after accepting a campaign flyer from McGreevey and handing it to her 11-year-old son.

Others, like the Riveras, are citizens but don't vote. Analysts say apathy, the struggle for economic survival and a heritage of political oppression back home all contribute to the low level of participation.

Numbering 35.3 million, Hispanics now represent 12.5 percent of the population and have eclipsed blacks as the nation's largest minority group. There are 23 million Hispanics of voting age, more than the entire population of any state except California.

Exit polls by Voter News Service estimated Hispanics accounted for 7 percent of the total vote in last year's presidential election. President Bush, cashing in on his popularity among Hispanics in his home state of Texas, won 35 percent of the Hispanic vote, far more than previous Republicans.

A prime battleground for Hispanic votes this year is New Jersey, one of two states with gubernatorial elections. Following Bush's script from the 2000 campaign, Republican Bret Schundler is trying to parley his hometown popularity among Jersey City Hispanics into statewide gains.

Schundler appointed Hispanics to Jersey City's two deputy mayor posts, named the city's first Hispanic fire chief, helped the state Hispanic Chamber of Commerce open an office and supported a statewide Hispanic education program.

Democrat McGreevey has countered by using Menendez, the first Hispanic elected to Congress from New Jersey, and other local Hispanic elected officials to carry his message.

When he campaigns in Hispanic communities, McGreevey has Menendez or other elected Hispanics translate his remarks into Spanish. McGreevey's wife also is fluent in Spanish and appears in campaign ads on Spanish television.

Both parties see New Jersey as a testing ground for Hispanic vote strategies they hope to use in next year's congressional elections. Hispanics now account for more than 13 percent of the population in 122 of the nation's 435 congressional districts.

For Democrats, the strategy likely will be to focus on heavily Hispanic communities, where they traditionally have fared best.

In Texas, for example, exit polls estimated Democrat Al Gore won 54 percent of the Hispanic vote. But in the 290 Texas precincts where Hispanics comprise more than 90 percent of the voting age population, the AP analysis found Gore won 73.8 percent.

Similarly, Gore won 67 percent of the Hispanic vote in California, according to exit polls. But in the state's 249 heavily Hispanic precincts, he won nearly 81 percent.

Miami pollster Sergio Bendixen said Hispanics in concentrated communities tend to be newer immigrants alienated by GOP efforts in the mid-1990s to deny them benefits from welfare and other social programs.

"That group now votes stronger for the Democratic Party than any other group within the Hispanic community," he said. "As you get out of those precincts and those regions of cities with high concentrations of Hispanics, support for the Democrats will lessen."

Most Hispanic analysts give Democrats the edge in the current battle for the Latino vote, because of the party's historical link to the Hispanic community. But they also say Republicans have a unique opportunity with Bush to make additional inroads into that community.

"Bush has that chemistry," Bendixen said. "He knows how to kiss the women, how to hug the men, how to make them laugh, how to look at them and talk to them. It's second nature to him, just like it was to Jimmy Carter and blacks in the 1970s."

Strategists for both parties say the new focus on the Hispanic vote will translate into more voter registration and citizenship drives in Hispanic communities, and more efforts to identify and motivate nonvoters.

"They don't vote because they don't see politics offering any hope for the future," said Union City Commissioner Rafael Fraguela, a Democrat. "We have to spend more time in the community explaining the opportunity this country has to offer."

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