From Margin to Mainstream: The Latino Electorate’s Journey in U.S. Democracy

Photo by Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

***

The Latino population continues to be the highest-growing minority population in the United States, with about 1 in 5 Americans identifying as Latino. Hispanics are currently 19.1% of the population, but are projected to make up about 26.9% of the population in less than four decades, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. However, despite the increase of Latinos in the U.S., they have the lowest voting participation rate among the general population, at 61.1%. 

In 2017, there were 6,600 elected Hispanic officials. In 2021, that number later rose to 7,087 out of more than 500,000 elected positions nationwide, still comprising less than 2% of all local and federal elected officials in the country. Roughly 20% of the Latino population in the U.S. are foreign-born, and therefore are not eligible to vote; however, the other 80% can. These eligible voters represent a significant and continuously growing portion of the electorate. Their voting power has the potential to shape political outcomes at various levels, from local elections to national ones. Yet Latinos remain historically low-propensity voters. 

This lagged mobilization impacts Latino representation in government, policy decisions, and overall civic engagement, perpetuating disparities and hindering the full realization of their collective voice and interests in the democratic process. One of the main factors that leads to low voter turnout is the low rates of organized community participation. Among the Latino population, there is a lower level of participation in formal groups or organizations, such as political parties, civic groups, clubs, or community organizations. Participation in these organizations is essential, as it often increases political awareness, activism, and voting participation within local communities.

Another one of the most important factors affecting Latino participation in government is the general feelings of political alienation and the lack of political efficacy. These feelings typically stem from historical disenfranchisement, language barriers, and low political fluency. As a result, many Latinos tend to feel marginalized and disconnected from the political process, leading to lower levels of voter turnout and engagement compared to other demographic groups. This alienation and lack of efficacy not only affects individual participation, but also leads to broader implications for the representation and empowerment of Latino communities in shaping public policies and decisions that directly affect their lives. 

In his textbook “Latino Politics in America,” author John A. García explores the evolution of this dynamic community and suggests a path forward toward fostering shared interests and forming relations among varied Latino subgroups. Group consciousness, as defined by Garcia, is “when a group maintains a sense of affinity and group identification with other members of the group, which leads to a collective orientation to become more politically active.” These strong feelings of belonging and strong political affiliations encourage one to go out and vote in a way that will benefit their specific racial group. 

In a 2006 study, Gabriel Sanchez—a senior fellow, professor, and scholarly author whose research explores the relationship between racial/ethnic identity and political engagement—found that these feelings of commonality with other Latinos have a strong effect on incentivizing Latinos to vote in local and federal political elections. This sense of perceived discrimination creates a collective identity among Latinos, fostering solidarity and mobilization within the community. The collective identity serves as a powerful motivator for political participation, as individuals are driven to advocate for policies and candidates that they believe will address the challenges and injustices faced by their ethnic group. 

It also comes as no surprise that more acculturated Latinos—meaning they have adopted the language, customs, and norms of the dominant American culture—are more likely to go out and vote. Ethnicity undoubtedly impacts Latino voting behavior; however, as individuals become increasingly immersed in U.S. culture, they often become more familiar with the political system, feel a greater sense of efficacy in participating, and are overall more confident when voting. 

This increased familiarity and comfort with the political process leads to higher voting turnout rates, specifically among the younger generations of Latinos. Additionally, as Latinos integrate into American society, they become more aware of the importance of civic engagement and the potential impact of their vote on issues that affect their lives and communities. 

Efforts to mobilize these Latino voters must be strong, intentional, and organic from both parties and in all forms of government. We must prioritize initiatives to increase voter education and outreach within Latino communities, ensuring that individuals are informed about the electoral process and the importance of their participation through accessible information in multiple languages and leveraging culturally relevant messaging to effectively connect with Latino voters from all walks of life. 

***

This article was edited by Margeaux Wenner and Hannah Pearce.