Immigration Protests May Not Spur Votes

The Associated Press
Monday, September 4, 2006; 2:40 PM

LOS ANGELES -- Immigration protests that drew hundreds of thousands of flag-waving demonstrators to the nation's streets last spring promised a potent political legacy _ a surge of new Hispanic voters.

"Today We March, Tomorrow We Vote," they proclaimed.

But an Associated Press review of voter registration figures from Chicago, Denver, Houston, Atlanta and other major urban areas that had large rallies found no sign of a new voter boom that could sway elections. There was a rise in Los Angeles, where 500,000 protested in March, but it was more of a trickle than a torrent.

Protest organizers _ principally unions, Hispanic advocacy groups and the Catholic Church _ acknowledge that it has been hard to translate street activism into voting clout, though they insist they can reach their goal of 1 million new voters by 2008.

"I was anticipating a huge jump in registration. I didn't see it," said Jess Cervantes, a veteran California political operative whose company analyzes Hispanic voting trends. "When you have an emotional response, it takes time to evolve."

It's impossible to count exactly how many new registrants were inspired by the new movement because counties typically don't ask for race or ethnicity.

New registrations were up this year compared to last year, but they were well below the numbers in 2004, and the increase is not surprise at a time Democrats and Republicans are struggling for control of Congress. Even without that factor, the numbers don't indicate the watershed awakening advocates had envisioned.

The emotional response that erupted in huge rallies across the country last spring was a reaction to federal legislation that would have overhauled current immigration policy, including criminalizing the estimated 11 million immigrants here illegally.

While that legislation is effectively dead this year, immigration remains a campaign issue.

Hispanic voters are a pivotal voting bloc, especially with their numbers projected to continue to grow. But they have long voted in numbers far below their share of the population, in part because many are under 18 or not U.S. citizens. A study by the Pew Hispanic Center found that while Hispanics accounted for half the nation's population growth between the 2000 and 2004 elections, they represented only one-tenth of the increase in votes cast.

The lack of political experience helps explain why the flow of new registrations has been halting.

Some activists acknowledge that their groups have yet to master the nuances of voter registration drives _ typically a face-to-face task more complex than mobilizing a march. Others complain that political parties with the most to gain haven't financed registration efforts.

"Until the money is spent, 'Today We March, Tomorrow We Vote' will always just be a slogan," said Nativo Lopez, president of the California-based Mexican-American Political Association.

"A million new registrations would cost about $10 million. Is anybody willing to pay that? I haven't seen it," Lopez said.

What's more, no galvanizing leader of the immigrant-rights movement has emerged, and the largest pool of potential voters _ young people _ tends to be the hardest to reach.

The AP reviewed new registration numbers over several years in metropolitan areas that include Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Jose, Calif.; Phoenix and Tucson, Ariz.; Dallas and Houston; Chicago; Atlanta; Denver; and Jacksonville and St. Petersburg, Fla. The time frames included January-through-July periods dating to 2004 and periods before statewide elections, when registration efforts are most intense.

The data provide a wide-angle look at new registrations, but do have limitations. Any significant shift in registrations overall would stand out, but voters are not specifically identified by race or ethnicity. As a result, an increase in new registrations in Los Angeles County in the 100 days before this June's primary compared to the months before two prior statewide elections cannot be attributed exclusively to new Hispanic voters, despite extensive registration efforts here.

Gains in new registrations were highest in 2004, when political parties spent lavishly to enroll new voters ahead of the presidential election.

New registrations increased in virtually every city from 2005 to 2006 _ but that would be expected because of congressional primaries and elections. The 2006 numbers were below the 2004 numbers in every city.

In Chicago and surrounding Cook County, registrations in the first seven months this year jumped about a third over 2005, but were far below the same period in 2004.

Joshua Hoyt, director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, a leading citizenship and registration drive organizer, predicted that the result of registration efforts would be apparent by 2008, the next presidential election.

"It's like a good old fashioned Chicago precinct operation," Hoyt said. "The only difference is that our candidate is comprehensive immigration reform."


Associated Press Writers Giovanna Dell'Orto in Atlanta, Nathaniel Hernandez in Chicago, Anabelle Garay in Dallas, Steve Paulson in Denver, Juan Lozano in Houston, Phil Davis in Tampa, Fla., and Arthur H. Rotstein in Tucson contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Associated Press