Fernando Sanchez jokes that, within 20 minutes of becoming a United States citizen, he was a registered voter.
But his ability to take part in elections here is something the insurance salesman from the Dominican Republic takes very seriously.
Sanchez treats it as a rite “to keep this country alive.”
The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that, with a voting strength nearing 22 million, more Hispanics will be eligible to vote in this year’s presidential election than ever before.
In Georgia, specifically, Hispanic voting power is growing. A report released last week by the Center for American Progress lists Georgia as one of 10 states in the country where Hispanics could sway elections.
But a large percentage of the group’s voting power is untapped. Pew’s report shows the percentages of unregistered but eligible Hispanic voters exceeds those of white and black voters by double digits.
“(Georgia) is one of the states that has a lower registration rate,” said Matt Barreto, a political scientist at the University of Washington whose research is referenced in the center’s report. “I think that poses a significant challenge to Latino empowerment.”
The Center for American Progress report suggests that some 88,200 Hispanics are eligible to vote in Georgia but not registered.
And if another 120,000 Hispanics in the state who are eligible to become citizens start the process and become active voters, their voting power could sway a Republican state in favor of Democratic candidates in the future.
“I think I can honestly say that Georgia’s not exactly thought of as a swing state (in national elections), but at the same time, there’s a substantial new bloc of people that could end up really putting it into play,” said Philip Wolgin an immigration policy analyst at the Center for American Progress’ left-leaning Action Fund.
“Of course, the question is, are they going to register? Are they going to naturalize and vote?”
Flip from red to blue
In 2008, Republican presidential candidate John McCain took Georgia by a margin of some 204,000 votes. If the state’s current Hispanic voting potential, as measured by the Pew Center, was realized, the state could have been won by Barack Obama.
“It is absolutely the case that Latinos could be a very powerful, influential voting bloc,” Barreto said. “Georgia is not going to flip in 2012, but it might in 2020.”
That is, of course, assuming that the majority of these potential Hispanic voters support Democrats.
Barreto, whose research is referenced in the center’s report, seems to think Hispanics’ Democratic leanings are a given.
Republican stances on immigration and the desire to repeal new health care mandates — Barreto says Hispanics are the largest group of uninsured — automatically align new Hispanic voters with the Democrats, he said.
“The voters that come into the system at this time are almost certain to prefer the Democratic Party,” Barreto said.
There’s research to suggest he’s right. A national survey of Hispanic voters Pew conducted in 2011 showed even as Democrats’ support shrunk by some 4 percent overall, Hispanics embraced the party more.
Two-thirds of Hispanic registered voters who responded to the survey said they identified with the Democratic Party.
And in a specific matchup between former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee, and President Obama, fewer than 1 in 4 said they would support Romney.
Obama has been criticized by Hispanics for high deportation rates. But with his announcement Friday that the U.S. will grant work permits to younger illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children and are otherwise law-abiding, the president is likely to become even more attractive to them, Wolgin said.
“Things like (Friday’s) announcement make it so much more likely that (Hispanics) are going to get motivated,” Wolgin said. “They’re going to come up and say ‘well, we’ve got two visions: We’ve got a vision of a president reaching out to Latinos and trying to protect children who came here at a young age through no fault of their own, the DREAMers, and you’ve got another party who’s passing laws like (Georgia’s) House Bill 87.’”
The 2011 law gives local police greater authority to question and arrest suspected illegal immigrants in Georgia and also makes it more difficult for illegal immigrants to obtain work in the state.
A uniting issue?
Sanchez, who came to the United States in 1997, refutes the idea that Hispanics can be lumped into one voting bloc.
“We don’t see each other as ‘Latins’ ... The Latin or the Hispanic concept doesn’t exist,” he said. “Yeah. We speak Spanish, but we use different words for different things.”
By the same token, Sanchez doesn’t think that all potential voters of Latin American origins have the same ideals or rally behind the same issues.
“Beyond immigration, there is not too much that unites us,” Sanchez said. “Everybody has different intentions ... everybody came here for different reasons.”
But Laura Ramirez Drain, executive director of the conservative-leaning HispanicVote.com, questions whether even all Hispanics are concerned with immigration policy.
Hispanics who are eligible to vote, she argues, may not be as concerned with immigration policy as they are education and jobs.
“If they’re eligible to vote, they’re worried about the economy and they’re worried about the jobs; their priorities are not immigration,” Drain said. “If they are not eligible to vote, that means they worry about immigration.”
Research at the Pew Center backs up her argument. The 2011 survey found that among registered Hispanic voters, the economy is the top priority.
Half of those polled said jobs and education were “extremely important” in the 2012 election; one third said immigration carried as much weight in their vote.
But in another poll conducted in November 2011 by Univision and Latino Decisions, 59 percent of Hispanic voters polled across 20 states said they would vote against a candidate who could not support amnesty for illegal immigrants, even if that candidate had an economic proposal the voter liked.
“To me, that’s absolutely telling that, yeah, they’re not a monolithic group. They don’t all vote alike on certain things, but everybody’s got their priorities,” Wolgin said. “And if you see a party — and this goes for either party — talking really tough and demonizing immigrants, it’s going to be, as my boss says, ‘adios’ to their vote.”
Push is on to register voters
No matter how Hispanics vote, groups are reaching out to make sure their potential voting power becomes kinetic.
“We know that Latino voters, especially, are chronically under-registered,” Wolgin said.
Sanchez said elections were “rigged” in his home country, making him prouder to be a part of a voting system he feels he can trust.
Still, he can understand what might keep some Latinos from registering.
“It is so ingrained in us that we have to reject the government,” Sanchez said.
National groups are trying to reverse that trend. Hispanicvote.com formed this year with the main goal of enabling potential Hispanic voters, a goal the group hopes to reach through social media and engaging youth.
In Georgia, where Barreto estimates that only 40 percent of Hispanics eligible to vote are registered, a statewide organization of Latino elected officials has launched a campaign to change that.
Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, said the group’s ORALE 10 initiative urges members to register 10 Hispanic voters this year. The association kicked off the effort this weekend with voter registration drives at retail locations across metro Atlanta.
The group plans to use Georgia’s recent anti-illegal immigrant law to mobilize and activate voters, Gonzalez said.
The U.S. Supreme Court, in deciding the constitutionality of a similar law in Arizona in the coming months, will influence whether court challenges of Georgia’s law will stand.
“Given the importance of the Supreme Court ruling, I think that the Latino vote is going to be mobilized like you’ve never seen before,” Gonzalez said. “People have recognized the impact that this has on our everyday lives.”
But for Sanchez, the need to vote is more basic. When he talks about the need to be a part of the American political process, he rarely mentions issues.
Instead, he talks about living in a successful democracy.
What he came from wasn’t a success. That’s why he’s here.
“We are here to really keep this country moving, because our nation’s project failed,” Sanchez said. “We don’t accept the way of living of those countries anymore.
“Our vote is to keep this country moving, forward and upward. It is about the continuation of everything that was started in 1775.”