Latinos are the fastest-growing minority in the United States, but they haven't achieved political clout to match their numbers because many do not - or cannot - vote, says a specialist in Latino voting.

That may change as the Latino population ages, because middle-age and elderly Latinos vote in much higher proportions than do those in their late teens and early 20s, says Robert Brischetto, executive director of the Southwest Voter Research Institute.Brischetto discussed Latino voting patterns Friday at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.

The Southwest Voter Research Institute was formed in 1986 to support the efforts of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, which holds registration drives and files redistricting lawsuits on behalf of Latinos.

Brischetto said a relatively high percentage of Latinos are either too young to vote or are not U.S. citizens.

Of those eligible, the percentage who vote is still lower than the corresponding percentages for whites and blacks, he said.

At least in 1984 - the 1988 numbers aren't out yet - that difference can be explained almost entirely by socioeconomic factors, especially education levels, he said.

Brischetto said Texas Latinos, who are primarily Mexican-Americans, remain predominantly Democratic although many younger voters are turning to the Republican Party.

Brischetto said he looked for a subgroup of Latino voters that had favored George Bush and found one in California - voters over 45 years old earning more than $40,000 a year.

In 1988 exit polls, Mexican-American voters in California, New Mexico and Texas named crime and drugs as the most important problem facing the United States.

"When we get into civil liberties, we find that they're not flaming liberals," Brischetto said.