Federal Inaction on Immigration May Affect Latino Voter Turnout

By Julianne Hing Nov 04, 2014

Will they or won’t they vote?

When it comes to Latino voter turnout, it’s a perennial election-season conversation. A recent Pew poll provides a hint at the answer to the 2014 iteration of this $64,000 question: How much will federal inaction on immigration reform impact the Latino vote? 

According to the Pew survey, Latino registered voters still much prefer Democratic congressional candidates to their Republican counterparts. But they plan to back Democratic candidates by smaller margins than they did in 2010–57 percent today compared with 65 percent in 2010. And perhaps most telling is that among Latino voters the percentage of those who say neither political party has much concern for them increased from 23 percent in 2012 to 35 percent currently.

The Latino vote is, of course, key: This year, 25.2 million are eligible to vote in the midterm elections, a 3.9 million increase since 2010, according to Pew. And for the first time, more than one in 10 U.S. voters is Latino. The challenge is that these voters have been unengaged and had some of the lowest turnout rates among all races. Fewer than half of eligible Latinos cast a ballot in 2012, and like that of all voters, their turnout dips during midterm elections. The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) has projected that 7.8 million Latinos will cast a ballot today, NBC reported. It’s an increase over the 6.6 million who voted in 2012 but still just 30 percent of eligible voters. 

Immigrant rights groups such as Puente Arizona say that President Obama likely hurt Latinos’ already-low turnout when he announced in September that he would postpone executive action on immigration reform. They responded to the delay by suggesting that Latinos punish Democrats by sitting out Election Day. The threat and others like it set off a furor amongst immigrant rights and Latino advocacy groups that wasn’t lost on voters. "One of the things we came across most was people asking: Why should I even register to vote if they don’t care about us?" says Celina Villanueva, the manager of the New Americans Democracy Project at the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. Canvassers who spread throughout Latino and immigrant neighborhoods in the Chicago area confronted "not just a lack of interest," Villanueva says, "but also a really strong sense of frustration that Latinos are completely ignored." 

"The immigration issue is a litmus test for Latino voters in the same way choice has become for women," says Lydia Camarillo, vice president of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project (SVREP), but considers the media obsession with the single issue tiresome. "I know that’s the narrative national leaders are having," says Camarillo, "but that’s not the conversation Southwest Voter’s having." The group has concentrated its get-out-the-vote efforts in Colorado on newly registered and drop-off voters who sat out prior midterm elections. Camarillo noted a "sentiment of disappointment" among Latino voters on immigration, "but I don’t know that it deters people from voting," she said. 

Colorado, where Republican Rep. Cory Gardner is locked in one of the season’s most closely watched Senate races against Democratic incumbent Sen. Mark Udall is, is also a unique case. Latinos, at 21 percent of the state’s population and 14 percent of its eligible voters, are a large enough contingent that their vote could prove decisive. 

Demographic shifts and redistricting have both Democrats and Republicans salivating over the potential of the Latino vote. Last week Republican Rep. Mike Coffman and Democrat Andrew Romanoff faced off in Colorado’s first debate held entirely in Spanish. Coffman’s been learning the language since last year and moving left on immigration since even earlier, the Denver Post reported.

In other states including Georgia and Kansas, a burgeoning Latino voting bloc has the potential to remake state politics this year. But thanks to a mix of factors including Latinos’ geographic concentration and stubbornly low turnout rates, in addition to restrictive voter ID laws, Latinos don’t have the political sway throughout the the country that they very well might have in Colorado. 

Loren McArthur, deputy director of civic engagement for the National Council of La Raza, calls Latino voters an "under-mobilized" and "overlooked" community. "We often ask in polls we’ve conducted: ‘Have any of the [political] parties reached out to you?’" Typically, says McArthur, only one-third of Latinos in the country have been contacted.

"The Latino community has so outgrown the non-profit infrastructure" to mobilize voters, says Angelo Falcón, president of the National Institute for Latino Policy. Absent sustained outreach from better-resourced political parties, the Latino vote may continue to languish on a national level. Further, when political parties do attempt to reach Latino voters, says Villanueva, the organizer from Chicago, they often do themselves and potential voters no good because they try a one-size-fits-all approach. They, for example, fail to send Spanish-speaking canvassers into Latino neighborhood.

While immigration is central to Latino voter mobilization strategy Villanueva notes that it’s just one issue important to Latinos. Like all voters, they care deeply about the economy and healthcare, and they consistently put those two issues and education at the top of their personal policy agendas, according to Pew.

This year Villanueva developed a two-pronged pitch to potential Latino voters: "If at the federal level immigration isn’t moving, then let’s focus locally and on the state level to make Illinois the most immigrant-friendly state it can be," she says to voters. Illinois voters also happen to be considering a non-binding minimum-wage increase today. "For the majority of the Latino community," says Villanueva, "life would dramatically change if our minimum wage went from $8.25 to $10.65."