Latinos are California’s fastest growing minority community and by 2042 are expected to be the racial/ethnic majority in the state.
Yet they are among the least likely to vote, allowing California’s political decisions to be made by white non-Latino voters and more organized, mobilized ethnic minority groups, researchers have concluded.
As the 2010 political campaigns already are beginning to come alive in California, the Asian Pacific Islander American Public Affairs Association has scheduled a meeting in Bakersfield on Friday [Dec. 11] to map out a strategy for encouraging minority communities to participate in Kern County’s political process.
A non-profit organization, APAPA’s mission is to educate the public, ethnic minorities in particular, about the importance of voting, explained Nia Lavulo, at the association’s Sacramento headquarters.
“It’s a matter of empowering people to get involved with their government at the national, state and local levels,” explained Danny Lee, president of APAPA’s Central Valley Chapter.
The purpose of Friday’s meeting is to develop voter participation strategies and to begin planning for a May town hall meeting in Bakersfield that will focus on the June 2010 primary election, Lee said. Friday’s meeting will be held in the second floor Tehachapi Room of the University Square Building, 2000 K St., Bakersfield from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.
Using estimated U.S. Census data, Latinos in 2008 comprised 47.1 percent of Kern County’s population, with non-Latino whites comprising 41.1 percent. Blacks were 6.4 percent, with the remainder of Kern County’s population of 800,458 being comprised of various other minority ethnic groups.
Yet, white voters have the political clout in California. The Public Policy Institute of California reported this fall that while Latinos make up about 32 percent of the state’s adult population, they are only 17 percent of the registered voters most likely to turn out in elections. Asians make up 13 percent of the state’s population, but only 6 percent are likely to vote. Blacks comprise both 6 percent of California’s population and the voter turnout.
By contrast, according to institute surveys, whites constitute 47 percent of California’s adult population, but 68 percent of the state’s likely voters.
Many Latinos and other ethnic minorities are not citizens and therefore not eligible to vote. U.S. Census estimates for 2008 indicate about 68 percent of Kern County’s 155,938 foreign-born residents – and that population figure includes children and immigrants who are legally in this country -- are not U.S. citizens.
But even removing the citizenship factor, Latinos and most ethnic minority groups in California and Kern County have a low voter turnout rate, according to researchers and political observers.
Lee explained that many new citizens come from countries that have monarchies or repressive governments. Voter participation is not understood or considered relevant.
“They are not involved. They stay within their families. They keep to themselves,” he said.
Two of Kern County’s high profile Latino politicians were asked to weigh in on the finding that minority groups are not participating in California’s political process.
“There are too many important issues affecting minority communities for people not to participate,” said Nicole Parra, who represented Kern County’s 30th Assembly District until she was termed out of office last year.
Now a Fresno-based government consultant, Parra noted that the Central Valley struggles with persistent poverty issues. These issues include the Central Valley’s average per capita income being 32.2 percent lower than the rest of the state; college attendance being 50 percent below state average; and the unemployment rate being among the highest.
To mobilize “voters, people need to feel like they make a difference, they are part of a team,” said Parra. “Most importantly, voters want to know that the elected official cares about their needs and their concerns.”
“People have to have a reason to vote, to come out and take the time to express their choices,” said Democrat state Sen. Dean Florez, who represents Kern County’s 16th District and who is running for California lieutenant governor.
“For the most part, people don’t vote because the ballot oftentimes is confusing. It’s cluttered with propositions,” he said. “I’ve spoken to people who simply feel that the ballot is too complicated and it feels like it’s somewhat of a test that you would get in school.
Recent gains by Latino politicians, who have been elected to local and state offices, should not be overestimated, warned Florez.
“Yes, you have Latinos who are taking on greater and more significant roles in government, but that was not always the case, even 10 years ago,” he said. “There is a nascent rise in political power among Latino … [but the Latino community] is growing astronomically in California.
“We are entering a period where California will become the most integrated, multi-cultural population ever in the history of the world and it’s all been accomplished relatively peacefully,” he said, crediting the nation’s Founding Fathers for creating a system that fosters integration and power sharing.
Minority participation in the political system is “a big deal because this integration is important to our survival as a society,” he said. If minority communities “give up, become isolated and don’t participate, such a situation could evolve into the type of conflicts that we have been able to avoid.”
This story written by DIANNE HARDISTY first appeared in The Bakersfield Californian and the newspaper's Web site www.bakersfield.com on Dec. 8, 2009.