PHOENIX – Every month for the next two decades, 50,000 Latinos will turn 18 years old. With that many new eligible voters, and dramatic population growth expected, Latinos could dominate voting in the Southwest, particularly Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, a project of the Pew Research Center.
But while the more than 600,000 new eligible voters a year could make them a potent voting force, Latinos have a historically low turnout at the polls: Only around 30 percent of eligible Latinos vote, according to the non-profit, Washington, D.C.-based Pew Hispanic Center. Advocacy groups see the national push toward more stringent voter identification laws as a way to suppress an already apathetic Latino vote.
Of the nation’s 21.3 million eligible Latino voters, only 6.6 million voted in the 2010 elections, according to Pew. White and black voters had higher turnout – 48.6 percent and 44 percent, respectively, compared to 30.9 percent for Latinos.
“We haven’t been able to engage the community to really participate in the democratic process,” said Carlos Duarte of the Phoenix-based non-partisan voter education organization, Mi Familia Vota Education Fund. “To be focusing our energy on trying to generate another obstacle for the people to participate, I think is completely misguided.”
Duarte, Texas director of Mi Familia Vota, which also has branches in Arizona, Colorado and Nevada, said legislators should instead encourage Latinos to vote.
Despite the low turnout of recent elections, the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials predicts record voting by Latinos in November – more than 12.2 million voters. That would be a 26 percent increase in turnout from the 2008 election.
Evan Bacalao is senior director of civic engagement for the Los Angeles-based NALEO, which represents more than 6,000 elected and appointed Latino officials. He said the group’s projections are typically conservative. NALEO uses the Census and Latino voter turnout in previous elections to forecast November turnout.
NALEO still is concerned about confusion over new ID legislation, Bacalao said. It is focusing on voter education so that Latinos are not discouraged from voting because they are misinformed about what documents they need, he said.
Of the eight states with the largest Latino populations, four – Texas, Florida, Arizona and Colorado – have some form of voter ID law, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The Texas photo ID law is awaiting a U.S. District Court decision.
Florida voters must show a photo ID that includes their signature, a student ID card for example. Arizona voters may show a photo ID or two non-photo forms of identification. Colorado voters must show ID, but that could include a bank statement, utility bill, paycheck or some similar form.
The other four states with large Latino populations do not require ID but three, New York, Illinois and New Jersey, have ID bills pending in their legislatures. California has no ID requirement and no bill pending.
With the exception of Rhode Island, voter ID legislation has passed by a party-line vote – Republicans for, Democrats against, said Richard Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine School of Law.
Supporters say photo ID laws will reduce voter fraud, but Texas Democratic Rep. Trey Martinez Fisher calls the legislation “a solution in search of a problem.”
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott cited 50 voter fraud convictions since 2002 as justification for the strict photo ID law that passed in March 2011. Texas has more than 13 million registered voters. The majority of its voter fraud cases involved mail-in ballots, according to state records reviewed by News21. Only one case resulted in a guilty plea to in-person voter impersonation, the type of alleged fraud a photo ID is supposed to prevent.
Other Southwestern states report little to no voter fraud.
New Mexico, which does not require photo ID, has never convicted a voter of fraud, said Lyn Payne, records custodian for the state attorney general’s office.
Arizona, which has a strict, non-photo ID requirement to vote , has had seven voter fraud convictions since 2000 but none for voter impersonation at the polls, according to state records reviewed by News21.
Colorado, which has a less strict, non-photo voter ID requirement, has had 21 convictions for voter fraud since 2000. Three were for voter impersonation, according to state records reviewed by News21. It is not clear whether the voter impersonation was by mail or in person.
Despite increasing legislative action on photo ID bills nationally, the majority of Southwestern states do not have such laws.
Photo ID laws have been proposed in the Colorado Legislature in each of the last eight years. The New Mexico Legislature has considered such laws for the last four years.
Latinos make up 13 percent of eligible Colorado voters. In April, Democratic legislators defeated in committee a bill that would have let Colorado voters decide on a photo ID law at referendum in November. The Denver Post reported that the bill’s sponsor, Republican state Sen. Shawn Mitchell, has said he may ask citizens to petition the issue to a future ballot.
New Mexico legislators struck down three photo ID proposals this year alone. The state has the highest concentration of Latino residents in the country and 38 percent of eligible voters are Latino, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
A significant turnout by Latinos in Colorado and New Mexico could affect the electoral vote in November. President Barack Obama in 2008 won Colorado, a state that had voted Republican in eight of the last nine presidential elections. New Mexico has leaned Democratic in recent years.
Latino voters accounted for 31.6 percent of the 2010 election turnout in New Mexico. In Colorado, 7.9 percent of the 2010 vote was Latino.
Arizona requires voters to show proof of citizenship when registering with a state form. A federal court struck down the portion of Arizona law that required citizenship proof when registering with a federal form. The Arizona secretary of state’s office website directs voters to prove citizenship, but does not inform them that they can register by using federal forms.
Arizona Solicitor General David Cole said the state plans to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Tammy Patrick, a federal compliance officer at the Maricopa County Recorder‘s office, said if a voter tries to register without proof of citizenship, an election officer is not obligated to tell them of the federal form option. However, if a voter asks specifically for that form, the officer is required to provide it.
Civil rights groups cite the handful of fraud convictions as evidence that ID laws are unnecessary and could disenfranchise eligible voters.
“These measures are usually reported to be justified by fraud but in fact voter fraud – it has been demonstrated time and time again – is frankly minuscule in proportion to the number of folks that vote,” said Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
MALDEF, a national Latino civil rights organization headquartered in Los Angeles, has strongly opposed ID laws and has filed legal challenges to voting rights laws in Arizona, Colorado, California, and New Mexico – most recently against the Texas photo ID law, which was argued before a three-judge U.S. District Court panel in Washington, D.C., in July.
Saenz said voter fraud pales in comparison to the number of voters who would be disenfranchised by ID laws. Estimates of the number of voters who lack ID under the new Texas law has ranged from the state’s 167,724 to the U.S. Department of Justice’s 1.5 million.
Despite opponents’ claims that voter fraud is rare, supporters of ID laws maintain that it threatens fair elections.
“It’s something that we hold very dear as a fundamental right in our country and in our state – the sanctity of our elections, that we have full and open, honest access elections to protect that right,” said Chris Elam, communications director and deputy executive director for the Texas Republican Party. “And we as Republicans feel that it needs to be protected and to make sure that we can do so.”
The push for ID laws comes at a time of dramatic growth in the Latino population.
There are about 50.5 million Latino U.S. citizens – native-born and naturalized – and the Census projects that number will more than double to 132.8 million by July 2050.
Latino political muscle first drew attention in the 2008 presidential election when 9.7 million Latinos voted – 2 million more than in 2004, according to the Census. And their potential is even greater.
Voting rights activists are focused on Texas, where Latinos accounted for 63.1 percent of all population growth between 2000 and 2009, according to the Center for American Progress, a Washington, D.C.-based, non-partisan progressive think tank.
One in five registered Texas voters is Latino, according to the 2010 Census. The Center for American Progress estimates that nearly 2.15 million eligible Texas Latinos are not registered to vote. An additional 880,000 Texas legal residents are eligible to naturalize, and therefore vote, according to Department of Homeland Security estimates.
That exceeds the 950,695 votes by which Sen. John McCain beat Barack Obama in Texas in the 2008 presidential elections. Despite population growth and increased participation in 2008, Latinos did not make themselves a force at the polls.
Antonio Gonzalez, president of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, a non-partisan Latino voter participation organization based in San Antonio, said the Southwest is not a voting culture. There are fewer independent organizations – unions, for example – to engage and educate the electorate, compared to other parts of the nation, Gonzalez said.
“It’s sad enough that Latinos don’t vote, now you’re gonna cut that group in half,” said Austin, Texas, resident Rachael Torres of the state’s new strict photo ID law. “There’s no reason for that.” If people have legally registered, that should be enough, said Torres, a registered voter herself.
Latino voters don’t think their votes count so they don’t see the vote as a right they must exercise, Torres said. She encourages other Latinos to vote, calling the ID law another “scare tactic” to discourage them.
Photo ID laws deter voters for several reasons, Saenz said. Some people do not have documents that prove their identity – they were born before it was common to issue birth certificates or they were born in rural areas where they might never have received the documents. Others might be deterred by the time and resources required to get the documents, Saenz said.
The Texas voter ID bill, SB-14, is one of the strictest photo ID laws. The Justice Department denied approval on the grounds that Texas violated Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act because of the disproportionate impact the law would have on minorities and the poor.
Democratic state legislators and civil rights groups such as MALDEF question the intent of the ID law, citing the lack of state studies to determine the potential impact on minorities, and the racially motivated rhetoric behind the bill in a state with the nation’s second-largest Latino population.
At the federal court hearings in July, several state lawmakers testified about reasons Republicans gave for the ID law – hotly debated in the Texas Legislature since 2005. Democratic state Rep. Martinez Fischer described the debate as “goal posts that kept moving” – justification ranged from stopping illegal immigrants from voting to preventing voter fraud and maintaining election integrity, he said of the floor debate.
Despite allegations of discriminatory intent, Republican lawmakers and supporters of the bill maintain it was designed to strengthen Texans’ confidence in the voting process.
“The purpose of SB-14 was to prevent in-person voter fraud,” said state Sen. Tommy Williams, one of several Republican legislators called by Texas to testify.
Williams said he supported the bill because he thinks that voter impersonation occurs more than the numbers indicate. He testified that someone voted under his grandfather’s name until 1994 – 60 years after he died.
Republican state Sen. Jose Aliseda echoed Williams’ assertion that the bill was not intended to disenfranchise minorities.
“The public expected us to pass the legislation,” said Aliseda, who testified that his constituents supported an ID law. Whether or not it curbs voter fraud, he said, what was most important was that Texans wanted it.
Del Valle, Texas, resident Juan Rosa said the ID law is a valuable safeguard. Rosa, who is from El Salvador, became a citizen in 2002 and has voted since then, he said. Latinos will have an impact in politics, he said, but first they need to vote. “We can’t actually raise up our voice if we don’t vote,” Rosa said.
But the Texas Democratic Party has called the ID law an attempt to disenfranchise a community that has the potential to change politics in a state in Republican hands for 30 years. Sixty-five percent of Latino voters said they would back Democrats in the 2010 election, according to the Pew Hispanic Center; 22 percent said they would vote Republican.
The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, which opposes strict photo-ID laws, reported that 6.3 percent of Latino voters in Texas lack the correct form of ID, compared to 4.3 percent of non-Latinos.
Until the photo ID law passed in 2011, Texans could vote by showing a variety of IDs, ranging from their voter registration card to a utility bill showing their name and address.
Under SB-14, voters would be required to show photo ID such as a U.S. passport, a driver’s license, military ID, a citizenship certificate with photo, an election identification certificate or a license to carry a concealed handgun.
Opponents also cite the burden placed on Texas residents to obtain the documents to acquire a government-issued photo ID.
Under the new law, the Texas Department of Public Safety would offer free photo IDs to registered voters who lack a valid ID. Individuals still would be required to present a birth certificate, citizenship papers, or additional documentation to obtain a state ID – documents many do not have, said Denise Lieberman, a civil rights lawyer with the Advancement Project, a Washington, D.C.-based policy, communications and legal action group committed to racial justice.
Lieberman and other opponents argue that low-income, Latino residents do not have the money to pay for documents such as a birth certificate, which costs $22 in Texas, and more if it is mailed to voters. Supporters disagree.
Williams, the Republican state senator, testified in the federal hearing that a birth certificate is a “fact of life” because it is necessary for so many things. So requiring someone to buy one to get an ID is not an undue financial burden, he said.
Voter ID legislation also has forced states to consider the efficiency and accessibility of offices that issue photo IDs.
Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis and state Rep. Rafael Anchia, both Democrats, said their constituents – many of whom work hourly wage jobs and rely on public transportation – also would be affected by the cost and time-consuming process of obtaining ID.
Eighty-one of the 254 counties in Texas do not have a Department of Motor Vehicles office, meaning some living in West Texas’ Fort Hancock would have to travel 50 miles west to El Paso or 66 miles east to Van Horn, Texas, where the office is only open Thursdays.
Despite his support for the voter ID law, Aliseda, the Republican state representative, acknowledged it would be a burden on his constituents, who mostly are rural farmers, to have to take a day off and drive 60 miles round trip to get an ID. Paying for the documents needed to obtain a free election ID card would also be a financial burden, he said.
Anchia opposes SB-14, but he does not oppose a future photo ID law as long as it balances access to voting with ballot-box security. He said the current Texas law does not strike that balance.
- News21 reporters Ana Lastra, Lizzie Chen, Khara Persad and Jack Fitzpatrick contributed to this article.