latino_voteTHE United States Census Bureau’s latest population estimates show that Latinos comprise 39.3 percent of the population of Harris County. In spite of the fact that Latinos are now the county’s largest population group, they only constitute 15 percent of the County’s 1.9 million registered voters. Yet, the relevance of the Latino vote and its promise cannot be denied.

An examination of Harris County’s 2008 November Election shows that the Latino vote had an impact on the fortunes of both major political parties. At the countywide level, the Republicans who won the positions of County Judge, District Attorney, and Tax Assessor would not have done so without garnering a significant portion of the Latino vote, about 30 percent. Moreover, if you extract the votes cast by Latinos at the Presidential level in Harris County, it changes the outcome. A 51 to 49 percent victory in the county for Barrack Obama turns into a 51 to 49 percent victory for John McCain. In short, the recent countywide election results suggest that Latinos may not be the largest among the major voting groups, but they are the key to victory.

If you look at presidential elections, in raw numbers, the Latino vote is growing. In the 1996 Nov. Election, according to a Latino surnamed voters count conducted by the County Clerk’s office close to 52,000 Latinos voted. In the 2008 Nov. Election, according to the NALEO Educational Fund, approximately 150,000 Latinos voted. That is a 200 percent increase. In a little over a decade, Latinos have more than doubled the total percentage of the vote they constitute in a Harris County election, from 5.9 percent to about 13 percent.

Despite the gains, the fact remains that the Latino voting strength is not where it needs to be. The Voter Registrar’s latest Latino surnamed count indicates that 296,000 Latinos are registered to vote. And the voter registrar and the NALEO Educational Fund’s Latino surnamed count of voters who participated in the Harris County 2008 Presidential election indicate that 140,000 to 150,000 Latinos voted. This means that only about a quarter of the Latinos who could be voting in Harris County are actually voting.

Achieving full electoral empowerment of the Latino community is a great challenge because 13 percent of the population may be legal but not citizens and about 17 percent may not have legal status. Overall, the U.S Census estimates that only 37.3 percent of Latinos may be eligible to vote. If the Census estimates are correct, it means that approximately 584,061 of the 1.5 million Latinos in Harris County are eligible to register to vote. The good news for the Latino community is that the demographic data indicates it is destined to grow. Currently, about half of the Latinos who are qualified to vote are not registered. And, a third of the population is under 18 years of age. In fact, Latinos make up 47 percent of the County’s population that is under 18 years of age. This means that in the next two decades, Latinos may contribute about half of the County’s voting age population. The question for the Latino community is how and at what pace will they become voters?

The work of community-based civic education organizations like the NALEO Educational Fund, whose programmatic activities focus on assisting legal residents apply for citizenship and then incorporate them and their U.S. born family members into the political process, has certainly contributed to the growth of the Latino electorate which has taken place in Harris County. And therein lays the answer to increasing the Latino vote.

To expedite the effort of growing the Latino electorate, the scale of civic education organizations’ work needs to expand. And for that to occur the local Latino business and political leadership has to be more supportive of civic education organizations that are conducting legitimate and lawful efforts to grow the Latino vote. Latino business leaders have to begin to have a more philanthropic mindset and invest resources in community political development. And the Latino elected leadership must provide support which is based on the idea of helping the Latino ‘community’ achieve its voting potential and put aside individual self-interest.

Support of community organizations is smart because as the Latino electorate grows the strength the Latino businesses inter-governmental advocacy efforts also grow. More importantly, the Latino leadership needs to support efforts to grow the Latino vote because, now and after the 2010 Census, the socio-economic and political prosperity of the Latino community will not just be directly connected to its total population but to its voting strength.

Latinos are an important part of America’s past and present. However, if Latinos are to have an even greater voice in shaping this nation’s immediate future, it is incumbent upon its leadership to support the private and public efforts that are currently taking place to make the Latino voting strength commensurate to its citizen voting age population.