Expanding Citizenship: Immigrants and the Vote

As was vividly demonstrated in the 2012 election, immigrant communities are increasingly a major political and civic force. A record 10 percent of the electorate in 2012 was Latino, up a percentage point from 2008, and the Asian-American share of the electorate rose to 3 percent, still small but historic. Both groups overwhelmingly voted for President Obama, in even larger proportions than they did in 2008, proving themselves to be potent voting blocs.

They are poised to become even more influential in the near future. The Pew Hispanic Center reports that Hispanics will account for 40 percent of the growth in the electorate over the next two decades. By 2030, 40 million Hispanics will be eligible voters, up from 23.7 million today. If Hispanics’ voter participation and naturalization rates increase to the levels of other groups, the number of Hispanic votes cast could double within two decades. Similarly, the Asian share of the electorate is estimated to more than double by 2040.

Nonetheless, even as the trends show growth, voting by naturalized citizens overall (as opposed to voters from immigrant backgrounds generally) still lags. While we do not have exact numbers for the 2012 election, the data from recent years are telling. In 2008, turnout among the native-born voting-age population was 64.4 percent and only 54 percent among naturalized voting-age Americans. The disparity in turnout between native and naturalized Americans has been persistent; in 2006, naturalized citizens voted at a rate 12 percentage points lower than their native counterparts—49 percent versus 37 percent—and in 2004, there was an 11 point gap.

Further, although voting is extremely important, it is not the only measure of political and civic participation. Studies indicate a gap in other forms of civic engagement as well, including volunteering for an organization, contacting a government official, signing a petition, and working for or donating to a political campaign.

So what can be done?

Voter Registration and Voting

Historically the parties have not seen it in their interest to invest in the naturalized-citizen population because it does not fit within their “win now” mentality. Parties and candidates have focused their energies on people who are already registered and likely to vote, a smaller and easier-to-target slice of the population—and one that has usually not included immigrants. Party and candidate outreach to Latinos has been growing as their population has grown, but it remains limited for the most part, oftentimes amounting to generic Spanish- language ads. Outreach to other communities, including the Asian population, has been even more wanting.

However, the Obama campaign broke from that history, beginning in 2008 and in a more significant way in 2012. Given demographers’ prediction of the exponential growth in the Latino and Asian populations, it’s easy to see how the Democrats’ efforts in 2012 are only the beginning of a shift toward mobilizing these groups, especially given their growing propensity to vote Democratic. Both ethnic groups are now realizing how critically important they can be in shifting election outcomes when operating more or less as a bloc.

Just after his inauguration in 2009, the Obama Administration reached out to Latinos directly through Spanish-language media, including media that had never before had access to the White House. Then, in 2011, the Obama campaign launched a ground game—door-to-door efforts, information sessions, tables at community events—to register Latinos, especially youth. This was exciting to see: a political campaign seeking to register new voters, adding more people to the electorate, rather than just relying on turning out return customers.

To continue reading this essay click here, and to read the other essays in the “Winning the Voting Wars” symposium, click here.