Despite Gains, Latino Voters Still Lack Clout : Election: Myriad reasons account for poor turnout. ‘This is more than a wake-up call,’ one politician says.


Thomas Garcia of East Los Angeles saw no point in voting on Election Day, even though he bitterly opposed Proposition 187.

“I’ve been in this country more than 40 years, and I’ve never seen Mexicans win a battle,” said Garcia, 53, who was born in Mexico but became a U.S. citizen as a teen-ager. “You don’t get what you want.”

Aida Cruz, 42, of Downey said that despite concerns that the initiative--which denies most health, education and welfare benefits to illegal immigrants--would hurt children, she could not find time to register to vote.

“That’s sad,” she said. “Including myself, we’re not doing enough.”


But Hector Garcia, 35, who grew up in Los Angeles and now lives in Chino, made sure he cast a ballot regardless of his criticisms of the political process.

“There’s that point that the one vote makes a difference,” he said.

Despite strong feelings in the Latino community over Proposition 187, and the community’s rapidly growing numbers, Latinos accounted for only about 8% of the state’s voters in the Nov. 8 election, the Los Angeles Times exit poll shows. Latinos make up 27% of the state population but account for 14% of eligible voters.

“Somebody just ought to say that Latinos didn’t vote,” said state Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles), who gave up his seat in a losing bid to become state insurance commissioner.

“The sleeping giant was in a coma on Nov. 8,” Torres said. “Maybe we need to institute a code blue to get it moving. Because this is more than just a wake-up call.”

There are myriad reasons for low voting levels. Latino leaders have long cited statistics that nearly two-thirds of California Latinos are non-citizens or not old enough to vote. “That’s a grim reality of Latino politics in this state,” said Harry Pachon, president of the Tomas Rivera Center, a Latino research institution affiliated with the Claremont Colleges.

Poverty and lower levels of education also have an adverse impact--as they do on voting levels in general. Another longstanding barrier to increased Latino political clout has been the reluctance of Mexican immigrants to become citizens.

Latinos do not stand alone in their struggle for electoral power. Political empowerment of ethnic and racial minorities in this country has taken generations in many cases. And Latinos lack some of the systems that aided other groups: the grass-roots activism of African American churches or the benefit of old-style political machines that greeted European immigrants at the docks.

But Proposition 187--attacked by its opponents as anti-Latino--was expected to rouse Latinos like no issue since the Chicano power movement of the late 1960s, drawing big numbers not just into the streets but to the polls. Yet, the Latino share of the vote did not increase from the two prior elections, according to the exit poll.

“I don’t think anyone went out and tried to mobilize the Latino electorate except very late in the campaign, and maybe even past the deadline dates for registering people to vote,” said Luis R. Fraga, director of Stanford University’s Center for Chicano Research.

In Los Angeles County, where Latinos make up about 37% of the population, they accounted for only about 9% of the voters, according to the exit poll.

While the Latino share of the vote has remained static since at least 1990, Latinos have gained important positions in business and politics. That is partly due to coalition-building, court rulings that produced affirmative action, and the federal Voting Rights Act, which requires Latino-majority districts to be drawn based on all residents, not just citizens.

“There has been so much talk about the electoral breakthrough of Latinos,” said Steven Erie, a UC San Diego political scientist who has written extensively about ethnic politics. “Where they have been less successful is grass-roots, bottom-up empowerment, such as citizenship, registration and voting.”

However, Latino activists say that Latinos did, in fact, turn out in higher numbers in this election. But, they assert, so did non-Latinos--especially non-Latino whites--canceling out any gain in Latino voting clout.

Nonetheless, the potential impact of a unified voter turnout was apparent. Latinos played a pivotal role in the close U.S. Senate race won by Dianne Feinstein. According to The Times’ exit poll, Latinos voted 67% to 22% for Democrat Feinstein over Republican Michael Huffington, who, like Gov. Pete Wilson, embraced Proposition 187. Latinos were the only ethnic group to increase their support of Feinstein from her last bid in 1992.

“Latinos were out voting,” said state Sen. Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles). “But non-Latino voters also came out to vote in higher numbers than usual.”

Antonio Gonzalez, president of the Southwest Voter Research Institute, said his organization is still assessing turnout. But he believes based on a sampling of 40 Latino precincts throughout the state that 45% to 52% of registered Latino voters cast ballots--"a dramatic improvement” from the 39% turnout in 1990. He also contends that Latinos accounted for 10.2% to 11.4% of the total vote.

“Compared to 1990, there are 300,000 more Latino registered voters,” said Gonzalez, who is also president of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, which spent $100,000 this year on registration and get-out-the-vote efforts in nine California counties. “We reached 1,750,000 this year. We were 1,450,000 in 1990.”

And some were encouraged by the turnout and stepped-up efforts to encourage Latino residents to vote.

“It might not look like that much but it’s more,” said Father Pedro Villarroya, director of the Office of Hispanic Ministry for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. “We wish we had the resources to concentrate on more people.”

It remains to be seen whether a disillusioned Latino community buys the notion that things are getting better, given the Election Day results.

“It’s clear to me that there’s a lot of work to be done in the Latino community,” said Cruz Reynoso, a former state Supreme Court justice who now teaches law at UCLA. The explanations that actual participation has increased do not “answer the question of why there was not a disproportionately higher number of Latinos voting because this was obviously a stronger issue for Latinos than it was for many others.”

Increasing the proportion of the vote is key to political empowerment, experts say.

“The way Latinos increase their clout is for their share of the electorate to rise,” said John Brennan, director of the Times Poll. “When that happens, people like Pete Wilson are going to get nervous.”

The exit poll showed considerable support for Proposition 187 among most voting groups--with Latinos being an exception, opposing it 77% to 23%. Its strongest backers were whites, about two-thirds of whom said they voted for the measure. Latino activists and political scholars agree that even if more Latinos went to the polls, it would not have overcome that level of support for the proposition.

But the larger issues remain. And some working-class Latinos blamed leaders of the community, saying the push against Proposition 187 was misguided and confusing.

Salvador Rodriguez, 44, a security guard at Paragraff Clothing Co. in South-Central Los Angeles, said some of his elderly Latino neighbors voted in favor of Proposition 187 because they feared their Social Security benefits would be used to cover services for illegal immigrants.

“ ‘We’ve worked all our lives. How are we going to survive if they take away our Social Security?’ ” Rodriguez, a legal resident from Mexico who lives near the clothing store, recalled his neighbors saying in Spanish. “That was their fear.”

Rodriguez said the issue was too controversial for some of his other acquaintances, who decided not to take one side or the other.

“They thought it was better to stay in the middle,” he said.

Ivonne Crescioni, 36, of Whittier said she voted, but that many of her friends did not.

“They don’t believe in the system. They can’t relate to the candidates, even the Latino candidates,” Crescioni said. “Many of these Latinos were also buying into the white argument about illegal immigrants taking all the jobs and services. It’s really sad that they believed that.”

Hector Garcia, who manages an auto parts store on South Vermont Avenue, said about 80% of his customers are Latino but it did not seem as though many of them were wrapped up in any “movement” involving Proposition 187 leading up to Election Day.

“No one was talking about it,” he said. “The message never got home the way it should have. I just don’t think the community got behind it.”

Garcia said there are plenty of polling places in Latino neighborhoods, but too few residents are convinced by politicians that there is good reason to vote.

The politicians are “not true leaders. They’re not out in the communities,” he said. “I think people don’t think that their one vote would make a difference. We talk about voting for four months but for (the time in between elections) nobody talks about it.”

But County Supervisor Gloria Molina said leaders consciously chose not to target the Latino community exclusively.

“The campaign was being directed at the California voter . . . to the Reseda housewife, to the Fullerton elderly couple,” she said. “There was no doubt that the end result and the implications and probably some of the hatred was directed at the Latino community. But the Latino community in and of itself never could have changed the outcome.”

Still, political analysts say the anti-Proposition 187 campaign simply may have caught fire too late.

“The opposition began to reach critical mass after the close of registration,” said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, senior associate at the Center for Politics and Economics at the Claremont Graduate School. “Many Latinos became motivated but too late to have that motivation translated into voting in this election.”

Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles) said the anti-Proposition 187 campaign was crippled by Wilson’s TV ads that hammered the pro-Proposition 187 message home over and over. “We didn’t have the money at the end to combat the governor and his commercials. Who would have known that the governor would have so attached himself to 187 on television? That really hurt.”

Latino activists offered mixed opinions on the get-out-the-vote effort.

Democratic Party officials and Latino leaders said that an intense effort was conducted, including calling voters.

But Roberto Lovato, executive director of the Central American Resource Center, said that commitments made by the Democratic Party to get out the Latino vote never materialized, at least not in his neighborhood. “In Pico-Union there was nothing,” Lovato said.

He said that among Latino leaders, efforts to get out the vote ranged from “those who did a lot . . . to those that did nothing.”

“They know who they are,” he said, declining to give names. “And their consciences know what the results are. They have to live with it.”

Even when Latinos reached the polls, they did not automatically vote against Proposition 187.

Art Alvarez, 28, of Alhambra voted for the initiative despite the objections of his close friend, Arturo Escandon, 25, of El Monte.

Alvarez, who was born in Los Angeles after his parents moved to the United States from Peru, said too many illegal immigrants take advantage of public services. Escandon, born in Mexico, is a legal resident without voting rights who hopes to become a citizen in time for the next presidential election. “Everything is done with false identifications,” Alvarez said. “I pay taxes.”

Escandon, a political science major at UCLA, said the initiative and proposals like the one that would institute a national identification card would inevitably result in the harassment of Latinos and other people of color.

“Why should (a Latino child) go through it if a little white kid doesn’t,” he said.

The major barrier to boosting the Latino share of the total vote comes long before Election Day or voter registration deadlines: Latino scholar Pachon estimates that there are at least 2 million Latinos in California who are legal immigrants eligible for citizenship but have not applied.

Bruce Cain, associate director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley, said the citizenship rate among Mexican immigrants is comparable to that for Canadian immigrants. But, he said, “Nobody is indignant about the Canadians who are taking up our seats at Kings games and are equally reluctant about becoming Americans. That’s where the racist component enters in.”

Traditionally, officials have explained that Mexican citizens are wary of renouncing their homeland, often clinging to an illusion: a dream of going back, even after their lives take root and children are born in the United States. But others see low sign-up rates as a product of a confusing, costly and often intimidating citizenship application process.

The reluctance among many to apply for citizenship also stems in part from apprehensions based on both fact and fiction. Some fear a loss of land ownership and other rights back home if they acquire U.S. passports--and, indeed, Mexico, South Korea and other nations limit the ownership rights of non-citizens.

Ironically, many Latinos remain undecided about citizenship despite difficult lives that they expect only to worsen under Proposition 187.

Duilio Franco, 39, of Norwalk, said he fled the war in Nicaragua several years ago with his family thinking life in the United States would be much better. But life, even as a legal resident, has been a struggle because jobs are difficult to find, Franco said.

Franco, whose three teen-agers attend local schools, said he believes the biggest reason for the approval of Proposition 187 was racism.

“This country is made of immigrants. The only ones who are pure are the Native Americans,” he said in Spanish. “The only thing you can do is go back to your country and die rather than die here like a dog.”

Nonetheless, Latino activists say they believe Proposition 187 will spur greater Latino political participation, including boosting citizenship efforts.

“I think 187 has demonstrated to Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Central Americans, Mexicans and other Latinos that we’ve got to vote because they’re willing to go this far with our community and try to get away with it,” Lovato said.

The payoff is a distant one for many. Immigrants must live in the country five years before applying for citizenship and the application process takes about a year, sometimes longer.

It was not always that way. Early on, political machines integrated immigrants into the political system at a pace unimaginable in contemporary terms.

“As the Irish came in, the ward boss was on their doorstep, ‘Welcome to America, we’re gonna get you a job, here’s some food, you need some coal, call me,’ ” Jeffe said. “There was an immediate identification, not so much with government but with politics. . . . That’s why the first wave of immigrants became active quickly.”

However, it took time for other immigrants--such as the Italians and Jews--to gain political power.

“By the time the Jews and Italians came around, the Irish machines had pretty much controlled power in the Northeast” (from the 1840s to 1870s), said historian Erie. “The other groups had to fight their way in. This is the politics of ethnic succession. Frequently a group has to rely on a self-help strategy.”

Experts believe that Latinos will become a larger share of the electorate--in time.

Latino activists are aggressively promoting citizenship, and immigration authorities report receiving 1,000 applications a month in Los Angeles, double the usual number. “As the population goes above the age of 18, you’re going to see in the next five to 10 years a real increase in the number of Latino voters,” Erie said.

Former Justice Reynoso said he would like to see the voter registration period--which now closes 30 days before the election--extended right up to Election Day. He also favors the motor-voter registration law, which requires the state by Jan. 1 to begin providing voter registration material to driver’s license applicants. But Wilson has ordered his Administration not to implement the law unless Congress forwards the money to pay for the program.

“The wake-up call was loud and clear,” Pachon said. “The giant isn’t so much sleeping. It’s a teen-ager that’s growing into adulthood. . . . People expect a magic transformation of a powerless community into a full-fledged powerful community, and it doesn’t happen that way.”

Latino Voting

Latinos, who make up about 27% of the state’s population, accounted for about 8% of the voters in the Nov. 8 election, despite strong feelings in the community over Proposition 187, the Los Angeles Times exit poll found. Here is how Latinos compare to other ethnic groups in California.

WHITE BLACK LATINO ASIAN Eligible voters* 71% 8% 14% 6% Registered voters* 88% 6% 11% n.a. Ethnicity of voter (1994) 81% 5% 8% 4% Ethnicity of voter (1992) 82% 6% 7% 3% Ethnicity of voter (1990) 77% 8% 9% 3% Voted for Prop. 187 63% 47% 23% 47% Voted against Prop. 187 37% 53% 77% 53% Motivated to vote by Prop. 187 30% 35% 47% 43% Foreign born 7% 8% 20% 59% Born in U.S. with one or both 12% 7% 46% 20% immigrant parents Born in U.S. with both parents 81% 85% 34% 21% born in United States

* Does not add to 100% because Latinos can be any race and are also included in the race groups, especially whites.

PROP. 187 VOTES BY CITIES (BullDog Edition, A38)

Here is a sampling of votes on Proposition 187 in cities with large Latino populations:

TOTAL CITY POPULATION % LATINO YES ON 187 NO ON 187 Huntington Park 56,065 91.9% 1,198 2,238 South El Monte 20,850 84.6% 846 1,368 Pico Rivera 59,177 83.2% 4,403 7,467 South Gate 86,284 83.1% 3,597 4,773 San Fernando 22,580 82.7% 1,152 1,662 El Monte 106,209 72.5% 4,455 4,920 Santa Ana 293,742 65.2% 22,153 15,823 Oxnard 142,216 54.4% 14,378 10,581 National City 54,249 49.6% 4,187 3,371 Los Angeles 3,485,398 39.9% 304,432 293,399 Chula Vista 135,163 37.3% 24,046 12,550

Sources: Los Angeles Times exit poll of California voters, U.S. Census, county registrars of voters