In the midst of the raucous and polarized presidential election, a quieter story has been at play as well: the growing political clout of Latino voters.
Nationwide, about 12 percent of the country’s eligible voting population is Hispanic—and the West is home to nearly 40 percent of those voters, far surpassing other regions. This November, Hispanic voters are projected to turn out in greater numbers than they did in 2012, with a nearly 10 percent increase forecast by the the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund.
At the same time, the Latino voting bloc is in transition: Latino populations are getting younger, larger and more politically engaged. In the process, they promise to change Western presidential politics.
Now, not only are there more Hispanic younger voters, but an increasing percentage of them are born in the United States. That naturalized population is beginning to dominate the Latino population of voters. (Noncitizens can’t vote.) Young Hispanics make up a larger proportion of the voting block than in other groups: 44 percent of Hispanic votersare between the ages of 18 and 35 this year, compared to 27 percent among white voters.
“Every election cycle, there is a tsunami of young Latino voters that is reaching voting age,” says Joseph Garcia, director of the Morrison Institute Latino Public Policy Center at Arizona State University. “This very well could be the last year that you could even think you could win an election without the Latino vote.”
While Latino influence on the outcome of elections is increasing, voter turnout among Hispanic voters remains generally low. In 2012, only 48 percent of Latinos who could vote actually did—compared to 64 percent of eligible white voters that made it out to polling places in the general election. But as the Latino population grows, the rate of voter turnout is increasing, too.
While participation is on the rise, significant barriers still prevent some from voting; historic trends take time to reverse. “More Latinos are eligible to vote, but you still face this millennial challenge: Young people, regardless of race, by and large, don’t vote,” Garcia says. Also, “If your parents don’t vote, you’re less likely to.” Often, Hispanic youth and their families work long hours or hold multiple jobs, which makes it harder to get to polling places on Election Day. Garcia says that was the case for his late father, a roofer from New Mexico, whose long commute and working hours made voting in person unrealistic. “The voting hours (6 a.m. until 7 p.m.) weren’t set up to make voting easy for him,” he says.
Immigration has been the defining issue for many Latino voters, 66 perecent of whom say they want to see comprehensive immigration reform. That issue has influenced a majority of Hispanic voters’ political leanings. While many Hispanic citizens hold more conservative values on social issues like gay marriage and abortion, the Republican Party’s views on immigration and environmental protection have led many voters to lean Democratic in presidential elections, says Jens Manuel Krogstad, an expert on immigration and social trends at the Pew Research Center. In 2012, more than 70 percent of the Latino community voted for President Barack Obama, and Latino voters are still expected to lean left come November. “(Republicans) are being interpreted by a lot of potential voters as anti-Latino—and that could impact the ballot this election,” Garcia says.
As more young voters come of age, the left-leaning tendency could strengthen. The younger and increasingly engaged Hispanic electorate in the West could be more of a deciding factor in upcoming elections, particularly in battlegrounds states like Colorado, Nevada and increasingly competitive Arizona.
In Colorado, a competitive state in the presidential election, a greater proportion of the Hispanic population has been born in the country. This is a recent shift from older generations where a greater proportion migrated to the United States. This November, more than 277,500 Latinos are expected to cast ballots—a more than 7 percent increase, according to projections by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.
The growing Latino population in Arizona could prove disruptive to the state’s notoriously conservative politics. According to the Arizona State University Morrison Institute and the Pew Research Center, if Latino voter turnout continues to rise at its current rate, Arizona would become a battleground state by 2030. This November, more than 433,000 Latinos are expected to cast ballots—an 8 percent increase from 2012, according to projections by the NALEO.
In Nevada, Hispanic groups are becoming more vocal on the immigration debate and about their opposition to Trump, whose campaign has taken an anti-immigration stance. But their influence is complicated by the fact that the state has the largest percentage of undocumented immigrants in the country (nearly 8 percent; California comes second with just more than 6 percent), according to the Pew Research Center. Organizations including NALEO and United We Dream, a group that represents immigrant youth, have begun to urge their peers to register and vote. Perhaps the most vocal group is the “dreamers,” a growing coalition of young, undocumented Latinos who’ve lived most of their lives in the U.S. While they can’t vote because they are not recognized as legal citizens, a group of them have started to go door-to-door to urge Hispanics across the West to register. “There is a force to gather the troops, so if Trump is the GOP nominee come November, they will be ready to vote against him,” Garcia says. In Nevada, more than 194,000 Latinos are expected to cast ballots in November, a more than 7 percent increase in turnout.
Until results from November’s presidential election are in, it’s hard to know for sure when the potential political clout of the Hispanic demographic could be realized. “Every election cycle, there is a new wave of Latino voters that mature into voting age, and everyone is watching that group more and more closely,” Garcia says. “But the monumental political shifts haven’t quite played out.”
Paige Blankenbuehler is an editorial fellow at High Country News, where this story originally appeared.