July 23, 2004

If you are a young person of Latino decent, odds are you don't vote. You are the least likely of any ethnic group to be registered, and the most likely of any ethnic group to say that voting is unimportant.

These facts come from extensive research performed by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at the University of Maryland on voting trends of people ages 18-30 in the Latino community, which shows that turnout rates on Election Day for this group have hovered in the 30-percent range. In other words, the vast majority of this 4.2 million-strong group are not making their voices heard.

The Latino population is growing more rapidly than any demographic in the nation. The U.S. Census Bureau determined that in 2000, Americans of Latino descent had grown by half in the 10 years since the last census had been conducted. This growth makes them a bigger ethnic group than African-Americas, a fact that may lead one to assume that their role in determining the course of the nation would correspondingly grow larger. But data shows that Latino youths trail other demographics in every field relating to voting, despite the fact that if they were to engage in the electoral process, they would prove numerically that they are a force to be reckoned with — an entity large enough to capture any politician's attention.

Republican party chairman Ed Gillespie, among others, has taken note of the potential power Latino voters hold in determining the outcome of what looks to be another close election. "A slight shift among Hispanic voters in [the swing] states can tip the Electoral College," Gillespie told USA Today last month. Bush's narrow win by 537 votes in Florida in 2000 is often attributed to a Spanish-language advertising onslaught he launched just before the election that appealed to the state's large Cuban-American population.

This year, politicians are pulling out all the stops to enlarge the Latino voter pool and sway the new voters to their side. This year, both Kerry and Bush have shown their awareness of the Latino force by spending a record-breaking $17 million on Spanish-language commercials, compared to the $3.3 million spent by the candidates in the 2000 election, according to The Washington Post.

They have their work cut out for them. Fewer Latinos ages 18-30 are registered to vote than others of their generation, with registration rates hovering at around 50 percent, while 15 percent more of their non-Hispanic peers are registered. Registration rates fall in correspondence with a view that voting and registering is a difficult process. Of people surveyed, Latino youths were more likely to feel that the electoral process was prohibitively complicated.

This sentiment may not be unfounded. Struggles with the nitty-gritty of democracy may stem from the fact that many in this ethnic group are foreign-born — roughly 25 percent of those eligible to vote — and English may not be their first language. Some states with large Latino populations, such as Arizona and New Mexico, offer voter-registration forms in both English and Spanish. But most, including Virginia, which 330,000 Latinos call home, do not present the option.

In 2002, in an effort to clear obstructions to voting, the government passed the Help America Vote Act, which created the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, a task force mandated to address ballot-access issues such as language impediments. Seven months ago the commission hired a group to translate the registration forms that allow citizens to register from any location in the U.S. Yet up until two weeks ago, when hastily cobbled-together translations were posted on the commission's Web site after it came under scrutiny by The Washington Post, the group had nothing to show. The Federal Election Commission still has no universal Spanish translation.

Laying the blame on forms and translations is overly simplistic, though, as seen by the fact that a large number of older Hispanic citizens are registered — about 20 percent more than their younger counterparts. What, then, is the cause for the disenfranchisement of Latino youth?

When asked whether the government addresses the needs of young people, more than half of Latino youths polled replied in the negative. In a country where, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Latino men get paid 62 cents to every white male's dollar for equal work, and where Latino women earn even less than that, 54 cents, even in professions that require a high level of education, it is easy to see what contributes to this generation's unfavorable view of the government.

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