Representation of Latino/as in Congress and in statehouses has increased substantially in recent years. Despite gains, Latino/as are still grossly underrepresented among legislators in this country. According to the Reflective Democracy Campaign, just 7 percent of members of the United States House of Representatives are Latino/as. Representation in the states is even lower. Just 4 percent of state legislators are Latino/as even though they account for 17 percent of the American population. There are many reasons for Latino/as underrepresentation. In the following weeks, I will focus on three barriers that help explain why so few Latino/as are represented in statehouses and Congress: the electoral system, invisible qualifications, and the money in politics regime.
Many elections in the United States, including those determining members of Congress and most state legislators, are held under a system of “winner-takes-all” plurality. This means that the person who gets the most votes, not necessarily a majority, earns the privilege of representing her neighbors. Most legislators represent geographically-delimited districts that tend to be gerrymandered in favor of a particular party. Those same districts often are also heavily segregated by race and ethnicity, owing to our nation’s high levels of residential segregation.
Latino representation is affected because they usually live in districts overwhelmingly populated by fellow Latinos. For example, half of all Latinos in the country live in 75 congressional districts (out of 435). A third of Latinos live in one of the 37 congressional districts where they are the majority of the population. This limited number of districts are those where Latino candidates have the highest possibility of winning, and they are doing just that: 23 of the 30 Latinos in the House of Representatives hail from one of those 37 Latino majority districts.1
A limited public is not the only barrier Latino candidates must overcome when trying to represent the people. Though legal qualifications for office are often minimal and limited to citizenship, age, and residency requirements, there are invisible qualifications that limit the pool of potential candidates. The most obvious of these qualifications are educational and occupational. Research by Duke University political scientist Nicholas Carnes finds that the vast majority of legislators have a college education. Political scientist Adam Bonica finds that most legislators have some type of professional background, often in law and business that gives them access to networks of donors. The composition of elected officials skews the views that people have about who can be elected to political office. Latinos see few people who look like them in office and few people from their own socioeconomic background since a majority of Latinos identify as working class.
Even if Latinos run for office, they have to overcome fundraising barriers. My Demos colleagues Adam Lioz and Sean McElwee have done an excellent job documenting the challenges candidates of color, including Latinos, face when trying to raise money in a system that favors those who are independently wealthy or connected to wealthy people. As a result
Candidates of color, such as Latinos, tend to raise less money than their white counterparts in similar races. A major reason for this fundraising difference is that candidates of color come from communities with less wealth, needing to tap the wealthy and predominantly white donor class that tends to ignore candidates of color as Demos research in Washington, DC, Miami-Dade County, and Chicago finds.
These three barriers not just limit the number of Latino/as who can run for and win elective office, it also affects how the issues Latinos care about are represented. With few Latinos in office, the diverse views on politics in the Latino community may not be well reflected in public debates. In the following weeks, I will focus on showing in more detail how these barriers work, but also how they can be overcome.