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Blocking the Latino Ballot?

By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, September 22, 2004; Page A31

To an immigrant, Arnold Schwarzenegger told delegates at the Republican convention last month, there is no country "more welcoming than the United States of America." And most of the time, that's true.

But it wasn't true last week in Miami Beach, where the Department of Homeland Security attempted to ban a nonpartisan voter registration operation from setting up tables on the sidewalk outside a massive naturalization ceremony at that city's convention center. The DHS complained that Mi Familia Vota would be blocking the doors at the swearing-in. But last Thursday, U.S. District Judge Adalberto Jordan ruled that the right to register voters was protected by the First Amendment, though he did stipulate how much space the group's tables could take up.

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If that arrangement seems to you the kind of compromise that Mi Familia Vota and the DHS could have arrived at themselves without making a literal federal case out of it, you underestimate the Bush administration's aversion to voting by new immigrants -- particularly new Hispanic immigrants. (The DHS didn't respond to Mi Familia Vota's request for a meeting.) In states such as Florida and Nevada -- battleground states with Republican election officials and burgeoning Hispanic populations -- the activities of groups such as Mi Familia Vota have been challenged by GOP officeholders, though it's a new wrinkle to have the DHS join the fray.

It's not hard to understand the Republicans' concern. Working in Hispanic neighborhoods across the state, Mi Familia Vota has already registered 58,000 new Florida voters, says Jorge Mursuli, its executive director. Though the operation is strictly nonpartisan, both its sponsors (which include groups such as the liberal People for the American Way) and the Republicans know that new Hispanic voters no longer hail preponderantly from Cuba, and they are likely to give most of their votes to the Democrats.

Indeed, most of the battleground states in this year's election are either former Republican strongholds growing more Hispanic (Florida and the Southwest) or onetime Democratic bastions with no immigration whatsoever and where the unionized share of the white working class is declining precipitously (the industrial Midwest). Two years ago, John Judis and Ruy Teixeira argued in "The Emerging Democratic Majority" that two long-term factors propelling the United States in a Democratic direction were Hispanic immigration and the growth of post-industrial metropolitan areas with socially liberal residents. The political transformation of California confirms their thesis.

But what about the industrial Midwest, where in many states neither factor pertains? From Pennsylvania to Wisconsin, there are a number of states from which young professionals flee to more vibrant economies and to which hardly any new immigrants tend to move. In the 2000 Census the United States as a whole was 69 percent white and 12.5 percent Hispanic, with 24 percent of the workforce holding down blue-collar jobs. But Ohio was 84 percent white and just 2 percent Hispanic, with 29 percent of its workers in blue-collar jobs; Wisconsin was 87 percent white and 4 percent Hispanic with a 28 percent blue-collar workforce; Pennsylvania 84 percent white, 3 percent Hispanic and 25 percent blue-collar; and West Virginia 95 percent white, 1 percent Hispanic and 29 percent blue-collar.

These are states where the white working class retains a numerical majority -- but it's a different white working class than it was a generation ago. With the decline of manufacturing, the rate of unionization in these states has dropped precipitously -- from the low 40s to roughly half that. And we know from four decades of exit polling that white male union members support the Democrats at levels about 20 percent higher than their nonunion brothers.

Not every Midwestern state fits this pattern: Illinois, with substantial Hispanic immigration and with the huge, now largely post-industrial metropolis of Chicago, and Michigan, with higher rates of unionization, are exceptions. But Karl Rove understands the opportunity that the Midwest affords him. He seeks to prompt the de-unionized white working-class voters in states such as Ohio to vote more like their counterparts in the South, to vote not on economics but in defense of their supposedly embattled cultural values and for the party of national security.

And down Florida way and in the Southwest, the administration, for all of Schwarzenegger's welcoming words, is trying to keep the Hispanization of the electorate from happening quite so fast. There, the Department of Homeland Security, charged with securing the republic from its enemies, is busy securing the Republicans from the newest Americans.

meyersonh@washpost.com


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