Latino Voices Will be Heard in 2014 Elections But Not Enough–Why Not Shout Louder?
By Ed Kissam
On August 4, a provocative article from Nate Cohn appeared in the New York Times—“Why House Deportation Vote Won’t Hurt the G.O.P.” Cohn argues, accurately, that the low proportion of Latino voters who are eligible to vote in eight of the nine states with competitive Senate races means the Latino vote won’t have a big impact on Senate outcomes in 2014. That’s an unpleasant analysis but well-justified wake-up call for those who care about political equity for Latinos and eventual passage of immigration reform.
Where Cohn over-extends his analysis is in arguing that Latino voters won’t have much impact on the 2014 House races either. He says that since Hispanics make up only 7.4 percent of the eligible voters in Congressional districts held by Republicans the party will retain their majority in the House—even after infuriating Latino voters (and many others) with their mean-spirited vote on deportation of Central American children and the effort to ban administrative relief for undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children (DACA).
Cohn is probably right about the dynamics of this year’s Senate elections and about Republicans’ continued control of the House in 2014, but the party’s anti-immigrant stance will actually inflict a good deal of pain on many of its candidates. At least in California. Republican efforts to block immigration reform as their best recipe for winning elections is already a losing gambit.
There are real uncertainties about how rapidly the real-world changing demographic profile of U.S. communities will affect national politics and the extent to which right-wing anti-immigrant politicians in Congress can continue to perpetuate de facto segregation on the basis of immigration status. But in California and in other states (including those in the South and the Midwest), as increasing numbers of U.S.-born children of Latino immigrant parents reach voting age, their votes will very soon tip the balance toward social policies which more fairly and inclusively represent community perspectives. Given the social and economic consequences of failing to act, particularly in the rural communities where demographic change is moving fastest, there’s a critical need to accelerate the slow pace of progress toward a future with truly inclusive democracy.
This future has already arrived in California. The Republican Party’s anti-immigrant stance will hurt its candidates in each of the competitive House races in California in 2014—even in the cases where local Republican Congressional candidates have attempted to distance themselves from their party’s anti-immigrant mainstream.
How important are the California 2014 House races? The Cook Political Report identifies 36 House races across the nation as being highly competitive—i.e. they are characterized as leaning red or blue or as a tossup. Six of these races considered to be competitive are in California (in the 7th, 21st, 26th, 31st, 36th, and 52nd Congressional districts). In contrast to the low national proportions of Latino voters cited by Cohn, Latino voters make up 8 to 23 percent of the registered voters in each of these competitive House races in California—substantially more than the national average. Even if we adjust for historically low Latino turnout in mid-term elections, 5 to 15 percent of the likely voters in the 2014 voting in these House races will be Latinos. At least in these races, their votes will make a big difference.
It’s worthwhile to remember what happened in the 2012 House races. In 2012, demographics had already caught up with the status quo in two of the currently six competitive California districts which went from red to blue in that cycle. Both newly-elected Congressional representatives (Ami Bera in the 7th District and Raul Ruiz in the 36th District) are the U.S.-born sons of immigrant parents. Bera won by 3.4 percent and Ruiz won by a margin of 5.8 percent. Both were strong and open supporters of immigration reform as well as being highly-qualified candidates for public office and were elected in part because of their progressive stance on immigration reform.
Do we need to resign ourselves to the current statistical reality of Latino under-representation in the electorate? Why not work harder and faster to help democracy keep up with real-world change? Why not address the huge economic and social issues faced by undocumented immigrants (which author Michelle Alexander correctly refers to as an American “human rights problem”) by investing more in vigorous voter registration and get-out-the-vote initiatives to mobilize the large numbers of Latinos (and others) who are eligible to vote in opposing the proponents of perpetual official inequality? Social and political equity for immigrants is not simply a partisan issue
Even if we fail to act, pundits’ dismal warning that Latino voters don’t matter has to be discounted—certainly in these 2014 competitive House races in California, and eventually everywhere in the U.S. Given the likelihood that the spread between candidates in these six California House races in 2014 which are competitive will be only 5 to 10 percent everyone who is concerned about practical and just immigration policy should join in efforts to assure that Latino and other under-represented groups of voters’ voices will be heard still more loudly in November.
Communities’ stakes in equity for immigrants are too high to be relegated only to the realm of partisan messaging. Latino families’ stakes in immigration reform and upward career pathways for DREAMers are high. But they are also high for all of us, whatever our ethnic group, wherever we live.
Ed Kissam has led various studies of immigrant settlement in the United States over the past decade, including the New Pluralism Study of immigrants in rural areas and the Latino Entrepreneurship study focusing on North Carolina and Iowa . He is currently working with a research task force on strategies to improve educational outcomes for Latino youth in rural communities throughout the United States.