polling place
A Los Angeles polling place Tuesday morning. Photo by Anabell Romero.
polling place
Citizens line up at a Los Angeles polling place Tuesday morning. Photo by Anabell Romero.

Latino voters could determine this presidential election ”” that is, if they turn out to vote. Nationally, nearly 24 million Latino citizens are eligible to vote in this election ””  4 million more than in 2008.

In California, according to the latest Field Poll, Latino voters have increased 7 percent since 2000, and now make up 23 percent of the electorate. During this same period, white voters have decreased from 72 percent to 63 percent.

Historically, however, participation by Latino voters has lagged behind other ethnic groups. While Latino voter turnout rates have been on the rise, nationally only 50 percent of eligible Latinos cast ballots in the last election, according to the  Pew Research Center. In contrast, 66 percent of registered Caucasians cast their votes in 2008, and 65 percent of registered African-Americans.

Hector Flores, education and communication director of InnerCity Struggle, does voter outreach in Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles. He says there are a variety of reasons Latinos don’t show up to vote, but most have to do with their socioeconomic standings.

In the “overwhelmed working class” he says, “most don’t see voting as a priority, like working or getting food on the table.” Flores says his organization is trying to change attitudes about voting, however, and is focusing on getting new voters, young voters and the occasional voters out to the polls.

The importance of the Latino vote was highlighted during the presidential debates. Both candidates courted Latinos on immigration issues. While President Obama told viewers how Republican candidate Mitt Romney had argued for “self-deportation” to solve the illegal immigration problem, Romney noted how the president has failed to pass a promised immigration overhaul.

The Latino vote is especially important in battleground states such as Florida, Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado, where significant Latino populations could tip the scales.

Much like other groups, Latinos list jobs and the economy as top issues, followed by education, healthcare and immigration.

The most recent numbers from the Pew Research surveys show 70 percent of Latino registered voters plan to vote for Obama, while 26 percent say they will vote for Romney.

While California is not a battleground state, Flores stresses the importance of voting consistently on propositions just as in the presidential election.

“Latinos are the tipping point for California and local politics,” he said. “If we can engage them to get out and vote, Latinos can change the political landscape.”

If more Latinos vote, they can have a national impact. According to the 2010 Census, the number of Latinos in the country grew 43 percent in the last decade.   By 2050, Latinos are projected to be 132 million, or 30 percent of the population.

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