Low Latino voting in Utah may leave them politically vulnerable

Published: Friday, Aug. 27 2010 12:31 a.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — About 12 percent of Utah's population is Hispanic. But Latinos cast a mere 2 percent of Utah's votes in the 2008 presidential election, according to census estimates.

That suggests the politicians who support Rep. Stephen Sandstrom's tough illegal immigration enforcement bill — which Hispanics fear could make life tough for anyone with a Hispanic accent — have relatively little to fear politically in this year's elections from upset Latinos.

"It would give sponsors more pause if a higher percentage of Latinos voted, but I don't know that it would prevent the bill," said Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake.

Sen. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake, added, "Every legislator has a constituency. They would think twice about this (the Sandstrom bill) if more Latinos voted." But, she adds, "It's an interesting question because Hispanics are well-represented in Arizona, and that didn't stop its immigration bill."

Kirk Jowers, director of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, said because of their skyrocketing population in Utah in recent years, "Hispanics should be a growing political force. But until they are voting on par with other groups, it allows for their opinions and positions to be discounted."

Sandstrom, R-Orem, is pushing a bill patterned after one in Arizona to require police to question the immigration status of people stopped for other crimes if they have "reasonable suspicion" they are in the country illegally. Critics say that may subject anyone with a Hispanic accent to harassment, and force them (but not others) to carry proof of citizenship at all times.

A Deseret News-KSL poll by Dan Jones & Associates in April showed that 65 percent of Utahns favored the bill — but it did not ask questions to measure support by ethnicity. Several national polls, however, have shown that up to 70 percent of Hispanics oppose such laws.

Surveys on voting by the Census Bureau after the 2008 election estimated that 59.7 percent of all residents of Utah age 18 or older voted that year. Among whites, 60.3 percent voted. But among Latino residents, only 26.3 percent voted — a voting rate less than half of that of whites.

That low turnout coupled with the fact that only about 12 percent of the state's population is Hispanic meant that only 2 percent of Utah votes in 2008 were cast by Latinos, according to Census estimates.

Hispanic leaders have long known about the low voting rates, struggled to figure out reasons behind it, and worked to improve voter turnout.

For example, in the lobby of Centro Civico Mexicano in downtown Salt Lake City, voter registration forms and posters about the need to vote are always available. But Centro President Frank Cordova says many factors hinder Hispanics from voting, even when they do register.

"We might register them in June or July. But many of our people are renters, and if they find a cheaper place to live, they move. They don't understand they have to re-register when the move out of their precincts," said Cordova.

Chavez-Houck passed a bill this year — recommended by the Governor's Commission on Strengthening Democracy — to help address part of that problem. It allows the lieutenant governor to automatically re-register voters who report new addresses for driver's licenses. But it still doesn't help people who move shortly before elections, or who have not updated driver's licenses.

Cordova says another problem is that many Hispanics work several jobs, often making it difficult to vote on Election Day. Jowers said that excuse should be disappearing because of recent changes that allow early voting and absentee-voting-by-mail.

Cordova also said a big reason many Hispanics do not vote "is a lack of understanding and education. Many people say their vote doesn't count. They don't think it makes a difference."

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