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Low Latino voting in Utah may leave them politically vulnerable

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."

Cordova has worked for years with the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project to try to tell Latinos they can make a difference. But he said most funding from that group goes to states with larger Hispanic populations, "so we kind of just get what is left over."

Amid controversy over the Sandstrom bill, Communities United, a local Hispanic advocacy group, also launched a recent registration education drive called "Mi Voto Cuenta," or "My Vote Counts." At the launch ceremony last month, director Sabrina Morales said, "By not voting, we are abdicating our right to influence government and allowing the will of others — whose opinions may be contrary to our own — to prevail."

At a summit of Latino groups earlier this month to discuss the Sandstrom bill, the topic of how to improve Latino voting arose. And several leaders had the same main suggestion.

"The way to get people to vote is to get one of us out there" as a candidate, said John Florez, a former deputy assistant secretary of labor in the George H.W. Bush administration. Florez said Latino turnout is high in races with Hispanic candidates.

Jowers at the Hinckley Institute agreed, saying, "When people identify with a candidate, they get out and vote at far greater rates — whether they identify with a candidate's ethnicity, gender, religion or certain issues. When they feel underrepresented by candidates and officials, their enthusiasm dampens."

Still, Jowers said it would be short-sighted of Utah politicians to take advantage of low turnout among Latinos now.

"Even if they get away with it for the next few years, there is no question that Hispanics are a growing force in American politics. Actions taken now will have impacts decades from now," he said.

"Political office holders in Utah who discount the Latino vote do so at their own peril, and need only to look back a dozen years to California to see what happens when a party does that," he added, saying upset Latinos there helped displace the party and politicians who took actions they viewed as targeting them.