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Hispanic Link News Service
Latino Voters Come Of Age
BY ARTURO VARGAS
November 19, 2000
November 7, 2000, earned several chapters in the political history of the United States.
One of these will be about how Latinos established themselves as a permanent, vital element of the nation's body politic.
Check out more coverage at Latino.com's Elections 2000 page.
The roots of 2000 began with the sea change that occurred in 1994, when virtually the same number of California Latinos voted in those congressional elections as did in the 1992 presidential voting.
This trend continued in 1996, when 4.9 million of 6.5 million registered Latinos voted, representing 5 percent of the overall vote.
Then this year, as never before, the Latino community delivered a resounding message of political empowerment to Democrats and Republicans alike.
From California, Washington, Arizona, New Mexico and even to Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and New Hampshire, Latinos demonstrated the impact they can have on an election. This month, exit polls found that Latinos may have been as much as 7 percent of the nation's electorate, which if further analysis shows it holds, will be an extraordinary increase from one presidential election to the next. This, after months of courting by Democrats and Republicans.
What this election did, on a national level, is prove that Latinos are a permanent element of a winning strategy for both parties.
The greatest evidence of further Latino political empowerment is the increase of Latino representation in state houses across the nation. In the first major election of the new millennium, Latino candidates recorded a net gain of eight state house seats. In California, the number of Latinos in the 80-member state assembly increased from 16 to 20, making one in four of the assembly members Latino.
In other states with sizable Latino populations, Latinos picked up more seats -- two more in New Mexico and an additional one each in Arizona and Colorado.
In states with smaller Latino populations, Latinos also won state house seats: in Rhode Island and New Hampshire. Neither state had a Latino serving in its legislature.
This political progress has helped pave the foundation for opportunities that will emerge in 2002, the first major election after the decennial redistricting.
Yet despite the role Latinos played in this year's elections, there is still much to be done to continue our progress. The growth in the Latino population overall is still outpacing the growth of the Latino voting population. The soon-to-be-released data for the 2000 Census will show that the Latino population grew at an amazing rate over the last decade, with Latinos poised to assume the mantle of being the second-largest population group in this country by mid-decade.
Thus there is still an awesome unrealized potential for Latinos to further influence U.S. politics and elections if we act assertively to remove obstacles to this progress.
We must continue to strengthen the naturalization process in this country. There are still many barriers to citizenship, including naturalization and green card application backlogs of nearly 2 million. The importance of this effort is underscored by a recent National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund study, showing that naturalized citizens outperform native-born Latinos and non-Latinos in voter participation.
While the beneficiary of the Latino vote appears to be the Democratic Party, do not underestimate the number of ballots that were cast for Republican candidates in races at all levels of government. That should be enough, I believe, to convince political strategists that if you address the issues, Latinos will support you.
But the biggest beneficiary of the surge in Latino voting is ourselves. Whether we support Democrats or Republicans, our community can advance only if we have representation in every party and every administration.
More than anything, though, Latinos can achieve an even greater legacy. Through the power of the vote, we can show the rest of the nation that we are not beneath our political aspirations, whatever they may be: the first U.S. Supreme Court justice, a U.S. senator or perhaps the first Latino president. Whatever our goals, Latino candidates and voters are showing the courage to pursue their political fortunes.
(Arturo Vargas is executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, or NALEO, with offices in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.)