Confusion about the strength of the Hispanic vote has existed since Hispanics became the largest population group in municipalities all over the nation. And, after every election, as electoral growth fails to match demographic growth, wishful thinkers regurgitate tired “Sleeping Giant” metaphors as naysayers denigrate Hispanics voters without offering much clarity on what is and on what could be as it relates to the Hispanic vote.
In Houston, the nation’s 4th largest city, according to Census estimates, Hispanics comprise 44 percent of its 2.2 million inhabitants. However, Census data also shows that only 26 percent of its citizen voting age population is Hispanic. In short, the disproportion between population and citizen voting age population is why the expectations of the Hispanic vote remain unfulfilled.
Census data shows that the “Sleeping Giant” hypothesis perpetuated by pundits about the Hispanic vote which is based on raw population is misleading. In Houston, there are only about 320,000 Hispanics who are citizens of voting age. Presently, if all race and ethnic groups in Houston achieved full voter registration from one day to the next, Hispanics would be the third largest voting group in the city, behind Whites and Blacks, not the portended “Sleeping Giant.” Factors like age and citizenship status make the voting “Giant” label improbable as it relates to Hispanics.
Still, Hispanics have the greatest potential for electoral growth. A surname query performed on the city’s voter roll using the Census list of the “639 Most Frequently Occurring Heavily Hispanic Surnames” show that currently the number of Spanish-surnamed registered voters in the city is conservatively an estimated 173,006. The difference between the citizen voting age population and the Spanish surname estimated registered voter count suggest that approximately half (47 percent) of the Hispanics eligible to vote are not registered.
For Hispanics, the issue of voter participation is not confined to voter registration. Spanish surname voter data show that Hispanics comprise around 17 to 20 percent of the registered voters within the city. But prior to the 2015 election, Hispanics constituted around 7 to 9 percent of the total vote in the last three municipal elections. Why? Analysis of voting and income data for the Houston area suggests there is a significant correlation between the two: the lower the household income, the lower the voter participation; the higher the household income the higher the voter participation. This may point towards a reason for the Hispanic voter consistent underperformance in elections.
In this Houston election, preliminary analysis of Spanish-surnamed voter data suggests that Latinos constituted from 12 to 15 percent of the voters. This means the Latino vote was strong because these percentages are most common during a presidential election. Thus, the notion that the Latino candidate failed to make the Mayoral runoff election due to Latino voters not voting is off base. In 2001, a Latino Republican made the runoff election receiving nearly 41 percent of the vote because of the strong support garnered from White Republican voters. In this instance, a Latino Democrat received 17 percent of the vote mainly due to the increased Latino voter turnout. Meaning that in this instance the Latino mayoral candidate failed to make a runoff because of the lack of support from White and Black Democrats.
The Hispanic vote increased during this election for many reason, a compelling ballot, support of community-based civic engagement activities by Spanish language media and a well-funded Latino candidate. But relying on sporadic voter outreach activities and other factors is not enough to increase the Hispanic vote in a significant way. To achieve that goal, all Hispanics must act responsibly and consistently: Hispanic business leaders must invest in community-based groups to expand voter education and mobilization initiatives; and, partisan leaders must rethink voter advocacy efforts which continually suggest that the electoral process is too difficult for Hispanics to navigate. That message only affirms Hispanics’ inherent distrust of the political process. If the goal of increasing the Hispanic vote is to be achieved, it is imperative every Hispanic citizen of voting age clearly understands that although the process of registering to vote and voting is not perfect, it is functional and accessible. Ultimately, the scale, tone and substance of voter engagement and advocacy efforts will determine the pace at which the Hispanic vote grows.
After every decennial Census, news stories about how increases in the Hispanic population will impact the political landscape dominate the public discussion. Few ever mention that while population plays an integral role in political reapportionment, population alone does not determine the number of registered voters on the voter roll nor voter participation, especially for Hispanics.
For this reason, if stakeholders are serious about increasing the Hispanic vote, understanding the difference in population and citizen voting age population is obligatory. The Census demographic data provides baselines which are indispensable to understanding where we are and where we need to be in the effort to make the Hispanic vote commensurate to its potential.