If you travel along main street Buford Highway which cuts through a main portion of the metro-Atlanta area, blocks of strip malls bustle with Latino businesses. That's certainly the case in Doraville where for more than fifteen years, my family and I have been regular patrons at Colombian restaurants, Mexican bakeries and bodegas. The beginnings of Georgia's Hispanic demographic boom predates the 2010 census. Between 2000 and 2010, the population nearly doubled by growing from 435,227 to 853,689.
The question becomes what will it take for the civic and political might of Latinos to match their demographic and economic strength, thus becoming a political king maker? More appropriately with the current Election 2014 race, can Hispanics become a "Governor-maker" or in the case with the tight U.S. Senate race between Republican David Perdue and Democrat Michelle Nunn, a "U.S. Senator-maker?"
As with previous posts in the original series "My Latino Midterm Election," I look at data from the U.S. Census and nonpartisan research centers to quantify voter engagement. According to the Census, the Latino population has increased from less than 1% of Georgia's 4.6 million residents in 1970 to 9.2% of the state's nearly 10 million residents today.
But residents don't equate registered voters who actually show up on election day. This gap is significant. According to the Georgia Secretary of State Elections Division, 92,000 Hispanic voters are registered to vote, representing a paltry 1.8 percent of the state’s 5.1 million total registered voters. Controlling for non-citizenship and the voting age of 18, 274,000 Georgia Latinos are eligible to vote and didn't register by October 1, 2014 when this data was collected. Given these numbers, it is no surprise that both White and Black eligible voters outnumber Hispanic eligible voters, respectively, nearly 16 to 1 and 8 to 1.
These statistics are not just shameful but not new if you consider that during the record-breaking Election 2012, 11.2 million Latinos cast ballots but 12.1 million eligibles did not. Furthermore as I write in My Latino Midterm Election: North Carolina and My Latino Midterm Election: Arkansas, this civic participation lag continues and is a pattern observed in state after state. Indeed, future scrutiny must uncover why voter registration drives such as the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials (GALEO)'s Latino Vote (registering voters according to their website since 2003) are failing to register Hispanics in droves? Why do campaigns, candidates, and parties add Latino outreach and engagement, including presence at community meetings and TV/radio ads, just before voter registration deadlines or election day? Then there's the role of the mainstream media, which doesn't cover Latinos as an integral part of an election and in egregious cases as happened in this midterm, reports "wildly incorrect" results. All these fails have significant repercussions on civic participation and its impact on political representation and democracy.
The answers to these dismal Latino civic engagement questions are long overdue. And while it doesn't seem that less than 2% of the electorate can wield much power, there's this scenario:
- if the Nunn-Perdue race remains as razor thin close as it is
- if Hispanics who are registered turn out and cluster around a candidate
- if a candidate does not receive 50% or more of the vote, there's a run off, and Hispanic eligible voters stick together
This unique set of circumstances could make Latino voters influencers in Georgia’s Senate and gubernatorial races. However, in order to truly be a force, Hispanics can't turn political conventional wisdom on its head by a series of "what ifs". This emerging political force must engage in the process before an election or before any party, campaign, or candidates begin their courtship.
What awaits is political respect born not from mercurial numbers, but real and consistent civic participation.
Although Georgia's voter registration deadline to participate on November 4 passed, eligible voters can still register and vote in future elections. Check the Secretary of State's website for information, including voter ID requirements which include how to obtain a free voter ID card.
To learn more about how the Hispanic demographic growth and voter registration are playing out in close 2014 midterm races, click here to read the original series "My Latino Midterm Election."