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If you had a nickel for every time a political pundit has labeled the Latino vote a “sleeping giant” that would soon alter American elections, you’d have enough money by now to run for Congress yourself. Finally in the 2008 election, the slumbering giant began to stir in quite a few states, where Latino turnout jumped considerably.

But not in Texas.

Latino voting in the Lone Star State has lagged behind comparable states such as California and Florida, and observers of Texas politics are puzzling over why.

A new set of numbers, released in July by the U.S. Census Bureau, shows how far behind Texas has fallen in Latino voting. The Census Bureau estimated, based on the number of Spanish surnames on the voter rolls, that 38 percent of the Latino U.S. citizens over age 18 in Texas went to the polls in November 2008. That was a slight uptick from 2004, when 29 percent of eligible Latinos voted. But other states experienced huge surges in Latino voting last year. California saw about 57 percent of eligible Latinos vote in 2008, more than double the turnout in 2004. In Florida, 62 percent of Latinos turned out in 2008, nearly double the 2004 proportion. And Nevada’s turnout more than doubled, to 52 percent.

Those kinds of increases are what the Texas Democratic Party has been hoping for and counting on for years. Latinos will soon make up more than 50 percent of the population in Texas. It doesn’t take a math degree to see the political potential to boost Democrats back into power. For that to happen, the party must increase turnout in urban areas, where Latino populations are exploding, especially in Houston.

But in 2008, Latino turnout in the Bayou City was mostly flat. The percentage of Latinos who voted in Harris County—21 percent—was even lower than the Latino turnout statewide. The Harris County Clerk’s Office has compiled the number of voters with Latino surnames participating in presidential elections dating back to 1996. Their share of the overall vote has increased slowly. In 1996, Latinos made up about 6 percent of the electorate in Harris County. By 2008, that number was about 11.5 percent. It’s progress. Still, that’s exceedingly low turnout in a county in which Latinos are more than 30 percent of the eligible voters.

There’s a lot of debate about the reasons for this. Some Democrats contend that the party’s turnout efforts have been flawed, slighting grassroots door-to-door operations in favor of television ads and mailers, which don’t do much to increase turnout.

Richard Murray, a political scientist at the University of Houston, says that a lack of successful Latino candidates and too little organizing has hindered turnout in Houston and statewide. In his 43 years observing politics in Houston, Murray has seen only one Latino candidate who had a viable chance of becoming mayor: Orlando Sanchez, a Cuban-American and conservative Republican who ran in 2001 and 2003. (See “Yes, Houston, There Is an Election.”) And recent statewide candidates such as Rick Noriega, who ran for the U.S. Senate last year, haven’t energized Latino voters.

In places like Los Angeles and Las Vegas, union organizing has helped boost Latino turnout (the Service Employees International Union recently brought its organizing efforts to Houston). Another boon in other states has been the success of Latino politicians such as L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, whose turnout operation brought many Latinos to the polls.

That may one day happen in Texas. But for now, the Democrats are still waiting.

Dave Mann is a former editor of the Observer.

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