CHICAGO -- As Latinos are projected to make up nearly nine percent of the electorate in November--a 26 percent increase over the 2008 figure, according to NALEO--the buzz around the power of the Latino vote is warranted.
There is the notion that the Latino vote will boil down to a lesser-of-two-evils choice between an incumbent who supposedly hasn't kept his immigration-related campaign promises or a candidate representing a party whose talk of electric fences and self-deportation has alienated many voters. This isn't just simplistic, it's insulting!
The Latino ballot will not be blindly cast. Latinos represent a complex, maturing political force, a community that is red and blue and every shade in between, as diverse in their political ideologies as the various nations that they represent. And in Illinois, where my organization, the Latino Policy Forum, operates, the maturation of Latino politics is represented by the various contentious Latino-versus-Latino state-level contests that will appear on next week's primary ballots, as well as the November ticket.
Sweet talk on immigration or the creation of a majority-Latino district, won't woo these voters. Locally or nationally, candidates wishing to win Latino support will be wise to engage this bloc in dialog on the bevy of other issues - education, healthcare, and the economy, among others - that are important to all voters. In fact, when our organization asks local Latinos about the issues that matter most to them and their families, education almost always trumps immigration.
That's not to say that immigration policy won't play a key role in the election this November. While 70-plus percent of Latinos are either US-born or naturalized citizens, many have family members who are caught up in the quagmire that is our current immigration system. And the mean-spirited, anti-immigrant legislation that has recently come out of Arizona, Alabama, Georgia and other states has only served to inspire political passion in Latino voters. This is especially so with our youth, the generation of "Dreamers," a bloc that will be casting their first vote in 2012. Our analysis shows that at least 37,000 Illinois Latinos will turn 18 this year.
Just as equating the Latino vote with immigration issues underestimates the complexity of the community, the notion that true-blue Illinois' vote will automatically go to President Obama discounts the importance of local Latino ballots on both March 20th primary and November 6th general elections. The outcomes of Illinois' Latino-versus-Latino races will be decided largely by Latinos, who must carefully cast their ballot for the leader who will best represent them and their interests in our state's capital of Springfield.
The results of state-level contests will also have significant implications for how Illinois' worsening budget crisis will affect Latino communities. The state's $8 billion in unpaid bills will translate into significant cuts to the social services, from childcare to healthcare, that are critical for Latino families. But voters will essentially assemble the team that will make those cuts, perhaps determining how deep they will go.
The potential for Latinos to swing - if not to decide - the vote is nothing new. Our analysis shows that the number of registered Latino voters in Illinois grew by more than 47 percent between 2000 and 2009, and NALEO's 2012 projections point to a 38 percent increase in Latino voters over 2008 numbers. However, less than 50 percent of Illinois' eligible Latino voters actually turned out for the last presidential election, compared to 62 and 65 percent of their African-American and White peers, respectively. And these numbers are traditionally much lower for midterm and primary races.
The Latino community's youth, sheer numbers, and political passion have them poised for a strong turnout in 2012. Latinos must act now - by voting in the primaries, registering to vote in November, getting educated on the issues, and encouraging friends and family to do the same. This must be done to ensure that our potential pans out into reality on November 6th. Just as Latino voters can't allow candidates to sell them short on the issues, they can't sell themselves short by staying home on Election Day.
Sylvia Puente is executive director of the Latino Policy Forum in Chicago, the convener of the Illinois Latino Agenda, and the author of Bordering the Mainstream: A Needs Assessment of Latinos in Berwyn and Cicero, Illinois, and Forging the Tools for Unity: A report on Metro Chicago's Mayors Roundtables on Latino Integration.