Erika Rodriguez registered to vote when she turned 18 this summer, motivated by Arizona anti-immigration laws she says could hurt her undocumented family members.
Now Rodriguez, a U.S.-born community college student, spends her weekends going door-to-door with other volunteers in Latino neighborhoods in Phoenix -- part of a push by Democrats, the Obama campaign and non-profit groups statewide that fueled a 51 percent surge in Hispanic voter registration since 2008, according to the Arizona Democratic Party, and may permanently alter the state’s political climate.
“I’m telling them their vote is equal to any millionaire, any billionaire out there,” said Rodriguez, a Democrat volunteering for the nonpartisan Arizona Center for Empowerment, after signing up a middle-aged Hispanic woman and her daughter to vote by mail as a half-dozen children huddled at their feet. “Through the vote is how we make a change -- not any time soon, but in 20 years, when her grandchildren are older.”
In the two years since Arizona passed its first-in-the-nation immigrant crackdown, the state has become ground zero in the U.S. debate over border issues. Republican Governor Jan Brewer, who signed the 2010 law, and Republican Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who faces a federal civil-rights lawsuit over treatment of Latinos, have won favor from immigration hard-liners and alienated many Hispanics.
While the jump in Latino voters may not be enough for President Barack Obama to carry Arizona in November, it will make Hispanics a more powerful force in the state in coming years, San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro said at a Bloomberg/Washington Post breakfast Sept. 6 in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Castro, who became the first Latino to give a keynote address at a national party convention when he spoke to Democrats last week, said Hispanic growth will shake Republican control of his home state of Texas and also give Democrats an advantage in Arizona, where the immigration backlash has increased electoral participation.
“I do think that because of those policies that it’s moved along the scale closer to being winnable by a Democrat,” Castro said. “You have seen some backlash and once these folks start voting, I think that they’re going to keep up a habit of voting.”
Arizona is projected to become more Democratic on demographics alone, according to some research. A report last month by the Morrison Institute’s Latino Public Policy Center at Arizona State University predicted that the state could turn from red to a blue by 2025, as a disproportionately high number of young Latino citizens comes of age.
The Hispanic share of the voting-age population will rise to 35 percent from 25 percent by 2030 -- and they tend to vote Democratic, according to the report.
Joseph Garcia, executive director of the Phoenix-based policy center, called the demographic shift a “tsunami” that will alter Arizona’s political landscape.
“I think the generation coming up will be a lot more politically engaged than the older generation,” he said in a telephone interview. “Both parties are going to have to go after Latino votes. Future elections you cannot win without the Latino vote -- it is that crucial, that important.”
Garcia said Democrats have hoped for years to reap benefits from Arizona’s growing Latino population, only to be foiled by low registration and low turnout -- a trend seen across the U.S.
Nationwide, Hispanic voter turnout lags behind other groups. About 50 percent who are eligible to vote did so in 2008, compared to 65 percent of blacks and 66 percent of whites, according to William Frey, senior demographer at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.
“The key is energizing those eligible voters, getting them to register, getting them to vote,” Frey said in a telephone interview.
That may be happening now in Arizona, said Rodolfo Espino, an associate professor of political science at Arizona State. Hispanics say their communities have been targeted by policies ranging from the 2010 immigration law, known as SB 1070 ,to a ban on ethnic studies classes, to a recent executive order by Brewer denying driver’s licenses to young immigrants allowed to stay under a new federal program, he said.
“Latino voters are frustrated with everything,” Espino said in a telephone interview. “Latino voters are being constantly reminded to get involved in politics so things like SB 1070 don’t happen to them again.”
Even with the increase in voter registration, enthusiasm and engagement, the number of Latino voters aren’t enough to give Democrats an advantage in this election, Espino said.
“What Republicans need to be worried about is they could very well push it to a permanent blue state,” he said.
Latinos registered to vote grew to 589,0000 this month from 389,000 in October 2008, said Luis Heredia, executive director of the Arizona Democratic Party. Total voter registration in the period grew to 3.1 million from 2.98 million, Heredia said in a telephone interview. Latino voters split 45 percent Democrat to 15 percent Republican, with the rest registering as independent or other, Heredia said.
The Arizona Secretary of State’s Office can’t verify the Democrats’ figures because ethnicity isn’t recorded on voter applications, said a spokesman, Matt Roberts. The Arizona Republican Party doesn’t track Latino voter registration, spokesman Tim Sifert said.
The only numbers that matter in this election are jobs, since “Latinos have been disproportionately harmed by the terrible economy,” Sifert said. “The Republican message is really a universal one.”
Thirty-six percent of Arizona’s registered voters are Republican, 30 percent are Democrats and 33 percent are independent or belong to minor parties, according the secretary of state’s office.
Democrats point to recent victories in mayoral elections in Tucson and Phoenix, as well as a Phoenix City Council race where a Latino candidate increased Hispanic turnout.
Heredia said Democrats stand to make gains in the Legislature, take a majority of the state’s nine U.S. House seats and win the open U.S. Senate seat with candidate Richard Carmona, a Latino who served as U.S. Surgeon General under President George W. Bush. He said he’s not ready to rule out an Obama win for his state either.
“Latino voters in Arizona are a part of a coalition that will help change Arizona,” Heredia said. “I think the performance of 2012 will help us shape the next decade of how we need to restore balance to the state, and Latinos make a huge part of that.”