Latinos' reluctance to vote has long been a fact of life in California politics.
But now that fact has changed. The shift is highlighted by fresh data on the 1996 presidential election, which shows that a huge group of new Latino voters went to the polls at the same rate as that of all the state's newly registered voters -and at a rate exceeding that of the state's voters as a whole.
Latinos overall were still underrepresented at the polls, the data show.
But the size and rapid growth of the new-voter group fueled by a still building, record surge in naturalizations among Latin American immigrants has narrowed the gap between Latino and non-Latino voting rates and suggests the possibility of a new pattern of heightened participation.
Generated by Political Data Inc., a respected, nonpartisan vendor of voter histories, the information on 1996 shows an "acceleration of a gradual change" that has seen steady increases in Latino voting in California over the last decade, said the firm's president, Jim Hayes.
Hayes found that a little more than two-thirds of newly registered Latino voters comprising as much as one-sixth of the overall Latino electorate went to the polls in 1996.
Their turnout, in fact, surpassed the level of participation by all registered voters, a little less than two-thirds of whom went to the polls.
Political strategists from both parties are aware of the trend and regard it as historic.
"I think this is the beginning of something that is a major change in the history of our state," said Sacramento-based Democratic consultant Richard Ross, who first obtained the data from Hayes and circulated it.
"It's definitely tremendous what Latinos are doing," said Bernd Schwierin, a demographic researcher for the Republican caucus of the state Assembly. "Historically, it fits the pattern of Irish Americans, Italian Americans and other immigrant groups, who came to this country and were underrepresented for a long time and then suddenly surged."
By most accounts, the Latino surge began relatively quietly with registration increases in the 1980s and was given a high-powered boost by a series of legislative initiatives, beginning with Proposition 187 in 1994, that sought to strip government assistance from illegal and, in some cases, legal immigrants.
These initiatives were perceived by many Latinos as an assault on their ethnic group.
"We were attacked as a community," said political consultant Leo Briones. "It really wasn't about illegal immigration. It was about all these brown faces that people see and are reacting to.
"Ironically, that was a good thing," said Briones, who has worked for the Latino legislative caucus and is married to Assemblywoman Martha M. Escutia (D-Bell), "because it put people into a mode that's good to be in in a democracy and that's very active and engaged."
The engagement has translated, in Hayes' estimate, into a substantial increase in the Latino share of the state vote, with Latinos moving from less than 9% to more than 12% in this decade. Hayes' figures are estimates based on a Spanish-surname analysis of voter rolls statewide. Other estimates, in the form of exit polls conducted by the Los Angeles Times and by and for the Field Institute, show the same trend, although slightly less pronounced. Surveys in overwhelmingly Latino precincts by the Willie Velasquez Institute, an affiliate of the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project, show a more pronounced version of the same trend.
The trend is also visible on the county level. Hayes estimates that the Latino share of the Los Angeles County vote rose from 11% to 18% and the share of the Orange County vote rose from 6% to 9% in the 1990s.
Helping account for the acceleration in 1996 was the first-time presence in the electorate of a group of highly motivated new U.S. citizens.
Lack of citizenship has always been the chief cause of Latino under-participation in a state in which only about half of the adult Latino population qualifies to vote.
But in 1996, the leading edge of more than 1.5 million undocumented immigrants in California who qualified for amnesties in the late 1980s and fulfilled their citizenship requirements were eligible to vote for the first time.
Immigration and Naturalization Service records on countries of origin suggest that more than half of these new citizens are Latino.
The new registrants were literally a different population of voters, analysts say, a group that felt itself forced into citizenship as an act of self-defense. Mexican immigrants, in particular, had been historically resistant to U.S. citizenship, but gravitated toward it in record numbers because "the anti-immigrant movement in California . . . reinforced the impression that [they] needed to do everything possible to insulate themselves," said Wayne Cornelius, research director of the Center for U.S. Mexican Studies at UC San Diego.
Once they became citizens, these new immigrant voters were fired up. "They're coming here and sacrificing like you wouldn't believe in these minimum wage jobs so their kids can have a better life. And then [Republican Gov.] Pete Wilson [who backed Proposition 187] comes and says, "Not for you," said Assembly Majority Leader Antonio Villaraigosa, a Los Angeles Democrat.
Labor unions and immigrants rights groups recently demonstrated an ability to channel the anger of these new voters in a recent inner-city Los Angeles Democratic primary for a seat in the Assembly. Running an independent campaign on behalf of the winner, Gil Cedillo, they identified nearly 9,000 newly registered Latino voters in a district in which there were fewer than 14,000 votes cast.
Working the new voters with a campaign that touted Cedillo as the candidate best qualified to fight Wilson, the campaign claims to have turned out 45% of the new citizens on election day "the best [turnout of its kind that] I've seen or heard of in 23 years of campaigning," said Ross, a Democratic political consultant behind the effort.
The pronounced surge in Latino participation is chiefly a California phenomenon, said Louis DeSipio, a University of Illinois political scientist who specializes in Latino voting patterns nationwide.
DeSipio said other states with large Latino populations, such as Texas and Illinois, have experienced the same surge in naturalizations but not surges at the ballot box.
"There's going to be a gradual increase in all of these states," he said. "But what seems to have happened in California is that there was a spike and the spike begins in 1994, which was the year of the Proposition 187 vote."
This is particularly daunting news for Republicans, who have been closely associated with many of the most hated initiatives.
Recent exit polls show that Latinos, who analysts say traditionally have voted about 60% Democratic, have lately been voting Democratic at a far higher rate.
The ranks of the newly naturalized are certain to grow. INS statistics show that a record 879,000 immigrant adults were naturalized in California in the last three years. Another 623,000 have applications pending.
These kinds of numbers have the potential to make Latinos who now make up less than one-seventh of the state's 15-million-person electorate more important as a swing group in state races and crucial in many local contests. In this year's Los Angeles mayoral race, for example, a Times exit poll found that Latinos accounted for 15% of voters, nearly doubling their turnout from four years before and surpassing the turnout rate of African Americans for the first time. Their overwhelming support for Proposition BB a school funding measure was critical to its passage.
The extent to which new Latino voters will retain their keen interest in electoral politics is anyone's guess, particularly in light of polls that show anti-immigrant sentiment quieting as the economy improves, said Harry Pachon, director of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, a Latino think tank associated with the Claremont Graduate Schools.
"Will they fall into the pattern of their native-born counterparts? That's the $64,000 question for the 1998 election."
Pachon sees cause for optimism in a study that shows that young Latinos, ages 18 to 24, are more politicized and are voting at the same rate as young voters overall.
One reason is that Latinos coming of age now are being greeted by a growing infrastructure of Latino politicians with the self-interest and the wherewithal to energize more voters in their communities by soliciting their help in campaigns.
Fernando Guerra, director of Loyola Marymount University's Center for the Study of Los Angeles, calculates that the Latino share of what he terms the 300 most important elected jobs in California more than doubled to 36 in the last eight years.
Guerra credits many forces for this increase, but singles out the efforts of state Sen. Richard G. Polanco, the Los Angeles Democrat who heads the Legislature's Latino caucus. Polanco's key roles in recruiting candidates, gaining endorsements, raising funds and coordinating campaigns meant that "no single individual was more responsible" for the gains.
The surge also has been aided by immigrant rights groups such as the One Stop Immigration and Educational Center, a nonprofit group that provides legal and education services for immigrants, fostering a culture of participation. One Stop encouraged immigrants to take advantage of amnesty, offered instruction in English and civics, and held neighborhood meetings with politicians.
Its director, Juan Jose Gutierrez, believes that the meetings paid off. "All of a sudden people have been opening their eyes wide that we have freedom of speech . . . and begun really practicing democracy as a way of life [in neighborhood groups]. . . . That, to me at least, is the most powerful motivator."
Although the existence of a bumper crop of new Latino voters is not in dispute, its exact size remains a mystery because of limitations on the accuracy of voting data. Lists of registered voters maintained by counties sometimes have margins of error as large as 20% because the names of voters who have died or moved away are not removed. Hayes' data is also limited by the accuracy of the Spanish surname dictionaries that are used to identify Latino voters.
With that said, Hayes' calculations suggest that 40% of California's entire Latino electorate of 2 million registered after President Clinton's first election in 1992 and before his reelection in 1996.
Those numbers, Hayes agrees, are inflated because he cannot differentiate between real first-time voters and veteran voters who have moved from one county to another or from out of state. But he does not know how exaggerated the numbers are.
However, a statewide poll of Latino voters conducted just before the 1996 election by the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute suggests he is about one third off.
The poll found that 27% of the Latino electorate had registered since 1992.
At least part of the reason for the traditionally low Latino registration rate may be explained by demographics. Eligible Latinos, as a whole, are younger and poorer, have less formal education and are less likely to be homeowners than members of some other ethnic groups.
"People at the margins [in all ethnic groups], which means young people and very poor people, are more alienated and feel less vested interest," said Antonio Gonzalez, director of the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project. "Latinos have more of that profile."
The new Latino voters to some extent challenge that wisdom. They tend to be the working poor, Gonzalez said, and "they have a different issue base than that of the . . . middle-class Mexican American voter. They care more about wages and the uninsured."