Despite population milestone, Latinos still lag in California politics

Latinos' emergence as California's largest ethnic group is casting new light on an enduring paradox: Many do not vote, limiting their influence on government decisions that have a profound impact on their lives.

Latinos were 39% of the state's population last year, just surpassing non-Latino whites, at 38%, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

But in the November election, Latinos cast just 15% of the ballots, according to Political Data, a nonpartisan firm that tracks California voting patterns.

The gap between Latinos' population share and their clout in elections is a familiar pattern. It's also a longtime frustration of Latino political leaders.

On Thursday, the California Latino Legislative Caucus will release a report showing that for all their advances in recent years — and they are significant — Latinos still make up a disproportionately small share of the state's elected officials.

Just 10% of county supervisors and 15% of city council members are Latino, according to the report, "The Status of Latinos in California."

"By any measure, Latinos are very underrepresented at every level of government in California," caucus spokesman Roger Salazar said.

Their numbers are higher in the Legislature — 24 of the 120 members — but still just 20%, barely half of the Latino portion of the population. All but two of the Latino lawmakers are Democrats.

Still, Latinos' influence has been rising in Sacramento. Thanks largely to Latino lawmakers, the new state budget includes public healthcare coverage for an estimated 170,000 immigrant children who are in the country illegally.

Gov. Jerry Brown's approval in 2013 of driver's licenses for immigrants in the U.S. illegally came after more than a decade of pitched battles by Latino elected officials.

Lawmakers now routinely pick Latinos as legislative leaders, most recently state Senate leader Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles). Antonio Villaraigosa, a former state Assembly speaker, won election in 2005 as the first Latino mayor of modern Los Angeles.

But the population milestone confirmed last month by the Census Bureau underscored the distance that California's Latinos still must go to reach government representation commensurate with their numbers.

Citizenship is one barrier: Many Latino immigrants are ineligible to vote.

Another big factor is the relatively young age of Latinos. Census figures show that 32% are younger than 18 in California and thus ineligible to vote. Only 19% of other California residents are under 18.

Similarly, compared with other Californians, a large share of Latinos is younger than 35. And young voters are less likely than older voters to turn out for elections.

Latinos also tend to have less income and education than other Californians. Those traits, regardless of race or ethnicity, correspond to lower voter participation too.

Low turnout in elections can be a tough pattern to break.

When campaigns reach out to voters with phone calls, home visits and mail, they typically zero in on those with a record of frequent voting. So less affluent and less educated Latinos sometimes miss the kind of mobilization drive that can spur people to the polls.

"It's a self-fulfilling prophecy," said Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data, which sells voter histories to campaigns seeking to pinpoint their most likely supporters.

The result can be a primarily lower-income Latino community with local government leaders elected mainly by a minority of higher-income white voters who own homes.

"Those voters have way more political strength," Mitchell said.

Nonetheless, since the 2004 presidential election, the Latino slice of California's registered voters has risen from 17% to 23%, according to Political Data. The Latino portion of those who actually cast ballots in presidential elections grew from 15% in 2004 to 19% in 2012.

The growth in Latino voting is the No. 1 reason California has cemented its status as a Democratic stronghold.

Even as that advance continues, however, it's unlikely to make the state much more favorable to Democrats, as experts expect in more Republican states like Texas and Arizona, said pollster Matt Barreto, a professor of political science and Chicano studies at UCLA.

But what California's Latino growth could do, he suggested, is elect lawmakers who will steer more state resources to urban schools that serve mainly Latino immigrants, or to English classes and vocational training for their parents.

"You'll see more responsiveness to Latino issues," Barreto said. "They'll have a stronger voice."
Twitter: @finneganLAT

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