In the 2004 election, the nation's two largest immigrant-dominated populations - Latinos and Asians - will likely have a larger impact at the voting booth than they did in 2000.
But Urban Institute analysis of Current Population Survey (CPS) data indicates that voting levels among Latinos and Asians lag well behind the groups' population growth, largely because many new immigrants are not yet citizens and their children are still too young to vote. As a result, the full political force of Latinos and Asians will be felt over decades, not years.
Factors in Voter Participation
Ultimately, three aspects of the political process are strongly related to demographics and affect the number of votes cast:
(a) Eligibility - the share of the group eligible to vote because of age and citizenship;
(b) Registration - the share of eligible voters who register to vote; and
(c) Turnout - the share of registered voters who actually go to the polls to vote.
It is important to note that many other factors affect voter participation. Older citizens are more likely to vote than younger ones. People with higher incomes are more likely to vote than those with lower incomes. English language ability plays a key role. Further, as the results from 2000 showed, whether someone has been convicted of a felony can limit eligibility.
Finally, place matters. Turnouts are higher in some states than others because of hotly contested elections and/or the presence of groups supporting registration and participation.
Demographic Groups Defined
The Latino and Asian vote is growing. While the number of votes cast by whites in the presidential election rose by only four percent between 1996 and 2000, the number of Asian votes rose by 22 percent. Latino votes increased by 19 percent. In 2004, Asian votes will probably increase by another one-third over 2000 and Latino votes by about one-quarter while the overall total will probably go up by only about four to five percent.
These increases are occurring because the Asian and Latino populations are heavily dominated by immigrants: 64 percent of Asians are foreign-born as are 40 percent of Latinos. In contrast, only three percent of whites are immigrants.
The Latino and Asian vote is not proportional to population. Latinos represented 12.6 percent of the total U.S. population in 2000, but only 5.3 percent of the votes cast. Asians were 4.2 percent of the population versus 1.9 percent of votes. In contrast, whites accounted for 70 percent of the population, but over 81 percent of all votes.
In 2004, the Latino share of votes could increase to 6.1 percent solely because of population growth (meaning no changes in the level of registration or turnout). For Asians, population growth could increase their share to 2.4 percent.
Demographic factors dilute the Latino and Asian vote. About 62 percent of Latinos could not register to vote in 2000 because they were either too young or not U.S. citizens; 59 percent of Asians could not register. In contrast, only 35 percent of blacks and 25 percent of whites could not register to vote for demographic reasons.
Naturalization remains a key factor. Legal Latino immigrants are much less likely to become U.S. citizens than other immigrants; only 38 percent of those eligible had done so by 2000 versus almost 60 percent of other eligible immigrants. If Latinos had naturalized at the same rate as other immigrants, approximately 700,000 additional Latino votes would have been cast in 2000. Another one million Latino votes could be added in 2004 if the naturalization rate were on par with other immigrant groups.
Asians overall are at least as likely to naturalize as any group. Indeed, most of the countries of origin with the highest naturalization rates are Asian countries. Younger Asians are less likely to naturalize than older Asians, but this pattern is similar to all other immigrant groups.
Legal status also affects participation. About 13 to 14 percent of both Latino and Asian populations over 18 are not eligible because they are undocumented immigrants. This factor affects these two groups much more than others. Although there is a significant number of white undocumented immigrants, they represent only a minuscule share of the white population.
Voter registration lags at every age. Latino and Asian citizens are considerably less likely to register to vote than whites and blacks, at every age. If Latinos had registered at the same rate as white citizens, the result would have been approximately one million more Latino votes cast in 2000. Asians would have had 500,000 additional voters if they had registered at the same rate as white citizens. Without significant changes in registration patterns, it will continue to be a factor in 2004. Bringing Latino registration levels up to those of whites could add 1.3 million votes in 2004; doing the same for Asians could add almost 700,000 votes.
Lower turnout also translates into loss of potential votes. Latino citizens who register are less likely to vote than whites. If Latinos had turned out to vote at the same rate as white citizens, the result would have been almost 700,000 more Latino votes cast in 2000 (and up to 800,000 in 2004). Asian turnout levels are higher, but turnout as high as whites would still have added about 200,000 new Asian voters in 2000 (and in 2004).
Natives versus naturalized citizens. For both Asians and Latinos, there is not much difference in registration levels of natives and naturalized citizens overall. Once naturalized citizens are registered, however, they are substantially more likely to vote than natives. Much of this difference is due to the fact that the naturalized group is older, on average, than the native group.
Targeting implications. For Latinos, large and roughly equal payoffs can be expected from expanding naturalization, increasing voter registration, and increasing turnout. For Asians, the main strategic opportunity to increase their presence in the electorate is increasing relatively low registration levels.
Latinos and Asians are concentrated in certain states. In only 13 states does the Latino population account for more than five percent of potential voters. For Asians, the number is even smaller - five states - although Asians make up 67 percent of the potential electorate in Hawaii.
New settlement areas do not have many eligible voters. The 1990s saw a rapid spread of immigrants out of the traditional core settlement states of New York, California, Florida, Illinois, Texas, and New Jersey. Growth rates of Latino populations in the Southeast, Plains, and Midwest were particularly high. However, these rapid growth rates were driven by new immigrants and high fertility - two factors that do not translate immediately into voting power.
Geographic distribution of Latino and Asian voters will play a role in 2004. Latinos account for about 7.8 percent of potential voters nationwide. In the most heavily Latino state, New Mexico (40 percent), the presidential election was extraordinarily close in 2000. In Texas (25 percent) and California (19 percent), Latinos are unlikely to make a difference since Bush and Kerry, respectively, are prohibitive favorites. However, in potential swing states, such as Ohio or Wisconsin, even the one to two percent of potential voters who are Latino could play a critical role.
Asians are an even smaller share of potential voters at 3.1 percent. Asians are two-thirds of the electorate in Hawaii, but are more than five percent only in California (11 percent), Nevada (6 percent), and Washington (5 percent).
Latino and Asian voters will play a much larger role in future elections. Both Latino and Asian populations are projected to grow rapidly in the future, reaching about 25 percent and 10 percent of the population, respectively, in 2050. The aging of these groups and the increasing share of natives among them will strengthen the presence of Latinos and Asians in the pool of potential voters.
Currently, only 40 percent of each group is eligible to vote. By about 2025, about 50 percent of each group will be eligible to vote. If naturalization rates increase, the 50 percent mark could be reached sooner.