LATINO VOICES
01/12/2012 11:58 am ET Updated Jan 12, 2012

Latino Voting Habits: Why Hispanic Population Growth Is Not Reflected At Voting Booths

Carlos Fernandez, who heads the Center for Latino Arts and Culture at Rutgers University, cannot vote as a legal U.S. resident.

Born in Costa Rica, Fernandez has lived in the U.S. on-and-off since the 1980s. Although his wife is American, he never considered pursuing citizenship. "I had an attachment to my country," he said.

Still, Fernandez felt disconnected from the political scene in his new home, especially after the birth of his daughter in the U.S. Her arrival, he said, gave him a sense of permanence.

"The issues in the election affect us," he said. "I'm beginning my request for citizenship."

Considering the growing number of Latinos in the U.S., including naturalized immigrants, one may think that more Latinos were voting. But nothing could be further from the truth.

In fact, Latino representation among the electorate remains below their representation in the general population, according to a study by the Pew Research Center that looked at the 2010 Latino electorate. While 16.3 percent of the nation was Latino in 2010, only 10.1 percent of eligible voters and fewer than 7 percent of voters were Latino.

The figures are more surprising given that today there are several Hispanic politicians in important positions across the country, including talk of a possible vice presidential run for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. Other Latino elected officials in high-up positions include Gov. Brian Sandoval of Nevada, Gov. Susana Martinez of New Mexico and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles.

The Latino population in the country grew 43 percent in the last decade, according to Pew. Yet despite this demographic shift, the rate of Latinos who actually vote has not kept pace: "Only about 60 percent of Latino citizen adults are registered to vote, compared to 70 percent of blacks, and 74 percent of whites," Pew states.

Moreover, one in every six people in the country are Latino, as of 2010 numbers. But only 40 percent of those actually vote, a bleak comparison to the 80 percent of whites and 70 percent of blacks who vote, according to the Pew study.

The immigrant background of many Hispanics may be one possible explanation. While 77.2 percent of whites and 67.2 percent of blacks are eligible to vote, only 42.7 percent of Hispanics are eligible, and an additional 34.9 percent are under the legal voting age of 18. Some 22.4 percent of Latinos are not citizens.

Even taking into account the percentage of Latinos who are non citizens, the percentage of Latino voters still lags. While undocumented status explains some of this, other Latinos say they feel disconnected from the American political scene. Some simply mistrust the U.S. government and don't feel like their votes necessarily translate into better living conditions, say Latinos on the campus of Rutgers University in New Jersey.

Dunia Espinoza, a legal resident, was born in Peru and moved with her mother to the U.S. in 1994. She said she wouldn't vote if given the chance. "Presidents continue to make promises about education and immigration, but nothing happens," said Espinoza, a student studying social work.

Many young Latinos who are eligible to vote share Espinoza's sentiments. Only 17.6 percent of young Latinos who were registered to vote actually voted in 2010. The number of eligible Latino voters has increased by 13 percent since the 1970s, yet only 4 percent more of the total Hispanic population is voting now, according to Pew.

Juan Acosta, the son of a Latin American ambassador, said he wished he could vote. He is a legal resident studying political science at Rutgers. Legal residents are not eligible to vote unless they apply for and are granted U.S. citizenship.

"I think it's hard for Latinos to grasp that their one vote actually counts when they see so many people better off," he said.

Acosta said he believes that when poverty increases, political participation decreases. "They don't think it's worth a days wages to decide a government issue," he said.

Didier Morais' mother is Colombian, but he was born in the U.S and votes in each presidential election. He earned a journalism degree at Syracuse University and worked for the Boston Red Sox. He said he thinks that poverty and disenfranchisement foster a debilitating mentality.

"There are two mentalities that come from poverty," Morais said. "It's either: I'm poor and the government doesn't care or I'm poor regardless of who I vote for."

Some Latinos do not understand the American political system. Poverty and a lack of knowledge about politics conspire to cause Latino disenfranchisement, said Carla Ortiz, secretary at the Center for Latino Arts and Culture at Rutgers.

"Most of us [Latinos] are poor and can't get an education," Ortiz said. "Ignorance is the main problem."

Robert Montemayor, director of the Latino Information Network at Rutgers, said a deeper issue is the huge political and social divide among Latinos in the U.S.

"Walking to the booth seems insurmountable to some because of the cangrejada philosophy," Montemayor said.

Montemayor used the analogy of a cangrejada, or a pile of crabs in a bucket where all of the crustaceans attempt to climb over each other to get out, but only end up pulling each other down. He likened potential Latino voters to the crabs in that they're hurting themselves by not applying for citizenship, inadequately informing themselves, and letting others make important decisions for them.

"We tear ourselves down with our own ignorance," he said. "What good is being the largest minority if we have such a dismal voting record?"

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