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When the Sleeping Giant is Awake

Policies to increase the political participation of minority ethnic groups must address not only their levels of turnout but also the rate at which they become citizens. At the most general level, policies that create incentives for legal alien residents to become citizens ultimately will increase the level of voting among Latinos and Asians in both California and the rest of the nation. Immigrants who live in the United States for five years are eligible to apply for citizenship, a time-consuming but not difficult process. Yet many immigrants often live in the United States for decades, paying taxes and raising families, without becoming citizens.

A fruitful approach to boosting the citizenship rate would be an outreach program that stresses the values of full membership in the political community while facilitating the naturalization process for those who are eligible and interested. States, local governments and volunteer organizations can do more to prepare immigrants through English language classes and instructions for the civics test. Just as there are voter-registration drives, private groups can conduct citizenship drives. States could also lobby the federal government to increase staff and technical resources devoted to the naturalization process.

These recommendations are less controversial than some others. For example, requiring citizenship as a prerequisite for public employment, like airport security, would undoubtedly boost the citizenship rate, but it is both normatively suspect and would be politically controversial.

Once citizens, taking the steps to register and vote must be addressed. In some cases, civic education and community mobilization efforts might be especially helpful. The key is to provide assistance and motivation for those who need it. This study does not provide a definitive prediction of what the future will look like in California. It is intended as a road map that reveals the course of current trends. Hopefully, it will highlight some of the areas most in need of improvement and also offer some help in finding the best solutions for making California a healthy democracy.

Much of the participation gap for Latinos and Asians is explained by citizenship. In other words, a large number of Latino and Asian adults in California are ineligible to vote because they are not citizens. But even among citizens, turnout differences are considerable. Between 1990 and 2000, white turnout was about 10 points higher than that of blacks and 18 points higher than that of Latino and Asian American citizens.

For blacks and Latinos, that remaining voting gap with whites is almost entirely explained by socioeconomic factors such as age, education, income, and residential stability. After taking these factors into account, we find only minimal differences in turnout between whites, blacks, and Latinos.

Significantly, however, Asian American citizens vote much less frequently than would be predicted on the basis of their socioeconomic status.

Among Latinos, overall we found the lower electoral participation is due almost completely to three factors: their citizenship rate, their relative youth, and their socioeconomic status. Other findings about Latino voting behavior include:

  • Eligible Latinos register less frequently than all other groups. In 2000, only 64 percent of Latinos legally eligible to vote were registered, compared to 81 percent of whites, 78 percent of blacks, and 66 percent of Asians.
  • The turnout gap between Latinos and whites closed substantially between 1990 and 2000, when a series of racially-charged ballot measures sought to end illegal immigrant benefits, affirmative action and bilingual education. After taking socioeconomic factors into account, Latino turnout was actually greater than that of whites when voters passed Proposition 227 in 1998 to end bilingual education.
  • Broadly speaking, length of residence in the country compensates for nativity with regard to turnout. Among California Latinos, turnout among the foreign-born who arrived in the U.S. relatively recently lags behind that of native-born Latinos. However, among the foreign-born Latinos who have resided in the U.S. for longer periods of time, turnout rates are virtually indistinguishable from those of the native-born. (These findings are based on a statistical analysis that takes into account the differences in socioeconomic status across these groups.)
  • Regional politics within California-such as the Democratic tilt of Los Angeles and the Bay Area or the Republican climate in rural California-appear to have little relationship to Latino turnout. Any turnout differences across regions are largely accounted for by differences in the socioeconomic and demographic compositions of the Latino populations in each region.

Asian voters
Our findings defy some widely held assumptions: that intrinsic cultural differences explain the voter participation gaps among Latinos and blacks and that the growth of the Latino and Asian electorate will mirror population trends. It also reveals that various immigrant groups do not assimilate to American political culture in similar patterns.

These turnout differences are not unique to California. A similar pattern emerges in other states with high proportions of foreign-born residents, especially New York, Florida, and Texas. In all regions, adjustment for socioeconomic differences sharply reduces the electoral surplus of whites compared to Latinos, but the anomaly of low Asian turnout persists.

The relatively low turnout among Asians, as a whole, is something of a puzzle. Ironically, when it comes to political assimilation, the group often labeled the "model minority" because of educational and professional achievements--factors that in other groups correlate to high voter participation--lags behind Latinos. Although their socioeconomic profile compares to that of whites in California, Asian turnout still lags that of whites by more than 20 percentage points, about the same percentage as the Latino turnout deficit.

Among other findings about Asian voters:

  • Four out of five adult Asians in California were born outside the United States. Among these foreign-born Asians, a little more than half have become U.S. citizens. Among all adult Asians in California, the citizenship rate is 59 percent.
  • In contrast to Latinos, no single country is the dominant source of immigrants. The 2000 census found 19 percent of California Asians are from the Philippines; 19 percent from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong; 10 percent from Vietnam; 9 percent from Korea, and nearly 7 percent from India.
  • There are great differences in citizenship and turnout rates by nation of origin. Among Asian immigrants in California, those born in the Philippines and Vietnam have the highest rates of citizenship (each about 63 percent), followed by the Chinese at 49 percent, Koreans at 40 percent, Indians at 34 percent and Japanese at 27 percent. Among Asian immigrants, we found turnout to be highest among those from the Philippines and Vietnam, too.
  • The Asian group that best parlays its size into voting strength are Filipinos. Among adult Asian immigrants in California, about one in four were born in the Philippines. However, due to higher citizenship and voting rates, more than one in three Asian immigrant voters are from the Philippines.
  • California Asians appear more politically engaged than those in New York, the only other state with a large Asian minority. In California, the turnout deficit to whites was 18 percent; in New York, it was 29 percent.

The slow pace of Asians' political incorporation invites several hypotheses. One is that the diversity of Asian immigrants makes it difficult to mobilize for political activities. Language difference and organization rivalries may mitigate a sense of collective fate that could stimulate participation. Another factor may be that many Asians arrived from countries lacking democratic traditions. Some political observers say Asians, more than other groups, view economics and not politics as the most effective path to individual and collective achievement.

These findings have significant implications for the future course of policy making in California. Representative democracy is predicated on the belief that a more engaged electorate will produce governance that is more responsive and better reflects the public's interests. Moreover, voting helps immigrants, the main source of California's population growth, become assimilated and fosters social cohesion and loyalty to democratic institutions. In California, where direct democracy through the use of initiative and referenda have become so important, the question of who votes carries particular significance.


By Jack Citrin, professor of political science, University of California, Berkeley, and Benjamin Highton, assistant professor of political science, University of California, Davis

This opinion article appeared in the California Journal in the December 2002 issue

Try to imagine California on Election Day, 2040. The Golden State is home to more than 58 million men, women and children-nearly double the number in 1990. It is also so racially diverse that for every Asian in California, there are two whites and three Latinos.

And yet, for all of these demographic shifts projected by the California Department of Finance, the Golden State's voters in 2040 still won't look much like the general population. Indeed, white voters will remain a majority of the California electorate for at least another 40 years unless citizenship and voter participation rates increase. As it stands now, for every Latino who casts a ballot in 2040, there will be two whites.

This is one of the major findings contained in our new study, released to California Journal by the Public Policy Institute of California and titled "How Race, Ethnicity and Immigration Shape the California Electorate."

We examined the future California electorate to determine whether the existing gap between the state's electorate and its population will continue to pose a challenge for leaders attempting to foster harmony among rapidly changing ethnic groups. We also explored the reasons behind lower turnout rates among various ethnic groups and found important distinctions among Asian adults.

Regarding Latino votes, the study provides an unprecedented glimpse at the future of the so-called "Sleeping Giant," a common reference to the anticipated political power of California's Latino community.

One of the most important political developments in California during the last decade was the growing number of Latino voters, who began the 1990s as 9 percent of the voting population and grew to 14 percent by 2000. (Note: A Los Angeles Times exit poll regarding last month's election found Latinos at 10 percent of the 2002 electorate. If that finding is confirmed, it will obviously warrant further attention.)

This study suggests that Latino voting power may very well double in size during the next 40 years, promising a far more significant role in policy decisions and leadership positions for Latinos. At the same time, the study indicates that Latino voters will still be outnumbered by white voters, even when they represent a much larger share of the population.

Possible scenarios
As Yogi Berra put it, "Prediction is hard--especially about the future." It would be a heroic task to predict the precise demographic contours of the California electorate 20 or 40 years from now. Our study considered several possible scenarios involving various rates of participation for ethnic groups in California elections. It also considered a range of possibilities regarding the number of immigrants who will become citizens.

Perhaps the most critical question regarding the future of the California electorate is how many of the millions of non-citizen residents who are here now and will arrive in the coming years will become naturalized and thus eligible to vote. This question is also critical to the turnout of Asians, who are significantly underrepresented in California elections, but for different reasons than Latinos.

Today, among those of Mexican descent in California, a little more than half (55 percent) are citizens. Compared to all immigrant groups, those from Mexico are the most likely to reside in America for many years without seeking citizenship. Among immigrants from Mexico who have lived in the U.S. at least 10 years, just 27 percent have become U.S. citizens. Among those who immigrated before 1970, only 54 percent are citizens. And for those who immigrated in the 1990s, less than 10 percent were U.S. citizens by 2000.

Although current trends suggest that the composition of California's electorate will change at a gradual, steady pace over the next 40 years, unforeseen events, policy changes and social initiatives could close the participation gap between minority groups and whites.

But even when we considered a range of citizenship and participation rates, our study found that California's electorate will continue to over-represent whites and under-represent Latinos and Asians when compared to the general population.

For example, if current trends hold, our study indicates that whites would comprise about 35 percent of voting-age adults in 2040, but 53 percent of voters. At the same time, Latinos would comprise more than 40 percent of voting-age adults, but only 26 percent of the electorate.

To become the largest group of voters, Latino turnout would need to match that of whites and citizenship rates would need to increase 50 percent. Under this scenario, Latinos would barely edge whites (39 to 38 percent) among voters. We also considered two other scenarios in which trends in participation and citizenship differ.

If the gap in participation between Latino and white voters was cut in half, but citizenship rates continue unchanged, we predict the 2040 electorate would be 50 percent white, 29 percent Latino, 14 percent Asian and 7 percent black.

Alternatively, if the citizenship rate increases by 50 percent and participation rates remain unchanged, the 2040 electorate would be 45 percent white, 33 percent Latino, 16 percent Asian and 6 percent black.

Socioeconomic factors
The report's findings are based largely on demographic data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau as part of its Current Population Survey (CPS). We used CPS data from the six November elections between 1990 and 2000.

We focused on the state's four key ethnic groups-Latinos, Asians, blacks, and whites-and considered differences in citizenship, registration, and turnout. We then address whether group differences in turnout are explained by socioeconomic factors such as age, education, income, and residential stability.

Overall today, we found that whites are over-represented in the electorate while blacks are roughly at parity. Latinos and Asians are both under-represented in the electorate compared to the population. More specifically, in today's electorate:
  • Whites are 70 percent of the vote, but a bare majority of California adults.
  • Latinos make up 14 percent of the electorate and 26 percent of adults.
  • Asians represent 7 percent of the electorate and 12 percent of adults.
  • African Americans are 8 percent of the electorate and 7 percent of adults.

One of the most important goals of our research was to identify the reasons why minority ethnic groups have lower participation rates than whites. The answer is critical to finding the best methods for improving participation rates and making our electorate more representative.



Just the Facts: Latino Voters in California

A Portrait of Race and Ethnicity in California

Ethnic Context, Race Relations, and California Politics

Finding Common Ground: Racial and Ethnic Attitudes in California

How Race, Ethnicity, and Immigration Shape the California Electorate