Opinion: The Rising Influence of the Latino Electorate

It is well-known to many that the United States is in the midst of a drastic demographic shift: By 2043, non-Hispanic whites will no longer make up a majority of the population. And while it will take many years for these changes to be fully realized, the political implications are already being felt throughout the country.

Projections released last week by the Center for American Progress show that there will be an additional 4 million eligible Hispanic voters by 2016. In the face of a national debate on immigration reform, Congress should consider itself warned: The Latino electorate is a force to be reckoned with, and is only becoming more important.

The debate around immigration reform has ramped up significantly since November's election, when at least 71 percent of Latinos voted for President Obama. And much of the focus of the recent debate has been on whether a final bill will provide a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million aspiring Americans who currently lack legal status.

Given the increasing support for a pathway to citizenship, pundits have started speculating that 11 million new citizens might ensure electoral victories for the Democratic Party in key states such as Arizona and Texas. Unfortunately, it is perhaps this type of thinking that has led some Republicans to dig their heels in and oppose a pathway to citizenship, despite the fact that the future political identity and influence of the currently unauthorized population is far from clear. More important, it is still many years away because the road to citizenship is going to be a long one — under some plans, it would take as long as 15 years for someone to reach citizenship. Instead of being concerned about the next decade's electorate, Republicans and Democrats alike should focus on the tidal wave of eligible Latino voters that is emerging in many states.

Across the country thousands of Latinos are turning 18 daily and gaining the right to vote, and they are doing so at a much faster rate than other racial and ethnic groups. This means that the power of the Hispanic electorate is growing exponentially and outpacing all other groups. For example, in California more than 1.3 million additional Latinos will be eligible to vote by 2016 — making up 82 percent of the net increase in eligible voters in the state. As a result of this drastic increase, for the first time ever, non-Hispanic whites will no longer be a majority of the California electorate. But the story of a rising Latino electorate is not special to California; it can be seen across the country.

In Texas and Florida, 905,500 and 600,500 more Latinos will be able to vote in the 2016 elections, respectively. Such large increases, even in states that had significant margin of victories in the past (as in 2012 when Mitt Romney won Texas by over 1 million votes), will mean that Latinos could potentially tip both presidential and congressional races as soon as 2016.  And there is no doubt that an additional 178,900 Latino voters will be influential in Arizona, where the margin of victory in the 2012 was just over 200,000 votes.

If the spike in the number of Latino voters isn't reason enough for Congress to think that Latinos will be influential in the 2016 election, then the national political agenda ought to. Currently, Congress is taking up some of the issues that matter the most to the Latino community.

In an election-eve poll by Latino Decisions, immigration reform was ranked as the second-most important issue to Latino voters. In addition to the fact that 60 percent of Latinos know someone who is undocumented, this is a good indication that the Latino community is watching Congress closely as it attempts to create a commonsense immigration system.

To be sure, immigration reform is just one of the many policy areas that Latinos are concerned about. Facing a 9.7 percent unemployment rate, when the national rate is 7.2 percent, Latinos not surprisingly identified the economy and jobs as the No. 1 issue they want Congress to address in the coming term.

Over the next three years Congress will continue to take up issues in addition to immigration reform and job creation that will be of interest to the Latino community.  And while we don't yet know whether Latinos will voice praise or concern for what Congress does in the coming years, one thing is clear: The Latino voice will be louder than ever before.

Patrick Oakford is a research assistant at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.