En español | In casting his first ballot, Rodolfo Villalobos helped push Latino voter turnout to a record 9.7 million in 2008. The retired farm worker and Mexican immigrant became a U.S. citizen the year before the historic election that sent Barack Obama to the White House and ended decades of low Hispanic voter turnout.
Yet, like many Latino voters, Villalobos, 61, isn't sure he'll go to the polls this year, when there are congressional and local races, but no presidential contest. "I want to vote in the big elections, but don't know enough about [this year's] elections," says Villalobos, who lives in Yuma, Arizona. "I have to learn more."
While Latinos could be swing voters in many races this year, the big question is: How many will show up at the polls? Low voter turnout is the norm during midterm elections, especially among minority groups. Yet 2010 is a key election year that will determine whether Democrats keep control of Congress, who will win 37 governorships and the fate of hundreds of local candidates.
And there's a once-a-decade twist: the census. Governors and state legislators elected this year will help decide how district lines for Congress and state legislatures are redrawn in 2012. This year's national census is expected to show that the Latino population has grown substantially, potentially setting up redistricting fights over giving Hispanics what some would consider a fairer representation in Congress.
While Latinos could be swing voters in many races this year, the big question is: How many will show up at the polls?
Despite the high stakes, Gary Segura of Latino Decisions, a political research firm, says Hispanic enthusiasm for voting was at an all-time low earlier this year. In a March poll, only 49 percent of Hispanics surveyed by his organization said they plan to vote in November. Actual turnout is likely to be even lower because people don’t like to tell pollsters they don’t plan to vote, he says.
A Latino Decisions poll showed President Obama’s approval rating among Latinos, while still high, dipped from 73 percent in March to 64 percent in August.
Segura’s latest poll also indicated Hispanic voters say they are more likely to vote for a Democratic candidate (51.5 percent) than a Republican candidate (23.3 percent).
A new Arizona law that would have allowed police to check the immigration status of anyone who is stopped, detained or arrested may also be shaking off some Latino voter apathy, Segura says. The Justice Department successfully challenged the Arizona law in court and was able to block most of its most controversial provisions.
Latino Decisions determined 64 percent of Latino registered voters opposed the Arizona law, and 66 percent supported the Justice Department’s challenge.
For Villalobos, the Arizona law was a wake-up call that may lead him to the polls. He opposes it and calls it “anti-Hispanic.”
But the law has not had the same effect on non-Latino voters. According to a May 2010 Roper poll, only 20 percent of non-Latinos opposed the Arizona law.
A Latino Decisions poll, also conducted in May, showed that 59 percent of Arizona's Latinos hold the GOP responsible for the law's passage, but 33 percent said Republicans and Democrats are equally responsible. "Latinos see themselves as targeted by Republicans, but they are not giving Democrats a free pass," Segura says.