Walter C. Jones: Hispanics Claim Their Influence Rising At The Voting Booth

Hispanic leaders realistically note that their voting bloc isn’t large yet, but they suggest it holds some surprising strength in pockets around the state and may startle people soon with how much sway they’re acquiring in a short time.

A recent analysis by the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, GALEO, estimates just 2.2 percent of the state’s registered voters are Hispanic, based on projections forward of a count of Spanish surnames done in 2003. No one would call 2 percent a lot.

But if you nod off, you could be astonished the next time you glance and discover that the number has quickly reached respectable proportions. Just look at the pace of the last four years. Overall voter rolls in Georgia have grown 23 percent, but the number of Hispanic voters has ballooned 389 percent, according to the report.

A lot can happen in the blink of an eye at that pace.

Consider a few numbers:

Chatham County – 893 percent Hispanic growth versus 25 percent for the overall population

Clarke County – 187 percent Hispanic growth versus 19 percent for the overall population

Columbia County – 240 percent Hispanic growth versus 34 percent for the overall population

Coweta County – 1,485 percent Hispanic growth versus 39 percent for the overall population

Effingham County – 148 percent Hispanic growth versus 50 percent for the overall population

Fayette County – 278 percent Hispanic growth versus 27 percent for the overall population

Glynn County – 181 percent Hispanic growth versus 19 percent for the overall population

Oconee County – 358 percent Hispanic growth versus 30 percent for the overall population

Richmond County – 192 percent Hispanic growth versus 14 percent for the overall population

Granted, the percentages are based on a tiny starting number, but GALEO and the Spanish-language media are conducting voter drives across the state to keep driving the pace. Some spots announced Friday feature Julio Franco of the Atlanta Braves, a mature, well-respected figure from the Dominican Republic.

GALEO is also partnering with counterpart organizations supporting other ethnic groups in the registration drives and a get-out-the-vote campaign next fall.

There’s a little irony in that African-American leaders could be helping Hispanics to eventually surpass blacks as the most significant minority in the state, considering black registration growth has only been 31 percent over the last four years, a tenth of the Hispanic rate.

Jerry Gonzalez, GALEO executive director, sheds a little light on why Hispanics are registering so fast.

First, there are thousands of legal immigrants who never felt motivated to register before. Many have undocumented relatives and now see a threat to their families in the efforts to crack down on illegal immigration.

Family, after all, has always been a strong power for Hispanics, he notes.

“Given the heightened awareness of the anti-immigrant hostility that exists in Georgia, Latino U.S. citizens are feeling compelled to act in support of our Latino familias,” he said in a press release accompanying the document.

Second, many Hispanics had believed their votes would have little impact, so they never bothered to register. What’s changing is the force they are amassing in various cities and counties.

Three Hispanics have been elected to the General Assembly. Add a city council member here, a county commissioner there, and the evidence mounts that Hispanics don’t have to remain politically invisible.

Gonzalez points to some close recent elections to demonstrate how Hispanics could be a pivotal bloc already.

For example, the July 17 special election to fill the remainder of Rep.Charlie Norwood’s term was decided by just 394 votes between winner Paul Broun and loser Jim Whitehead. Well, Clarke County alone has 459 Hispanic voters, not counting the other counties in the district, he reasons.

Remember, Whitehead made cracking down on illegal immigration his topissue in that race.

In mayors’ races this year in Dalton and Doraville, Hispanics were the main issues on both sides, including efforts to fire the state’s first Latino chief of police in Doraville. In both cities, the number of registered Hispanics was larger than the difference between the top votegetters.

“As indicated throughout this report, the potential impact is alreadyhere,” Gonzalez said.

“However, the Latino electorate must harness that potential electoral power to ensure greater impact at the polls. Onceregistered, Latino voters must also commit to vote.”

A third factor that Gonzalez didn’t mention is New Mexico Gov. BillRichardson’s presidential campaign. Strong candidates have always drawn people to register and vote, so simply having his name on the ballot in Georgia’s primary will add Hispanics to the voter rolls.

“I’m not just here to raise money. I’m here to campaign,” he said during an October visit. “You’re going to see a lot more of Bill Richardson.”

The nation’s first Hispanic governor came to Georgia to launch his Mi Familia con Richardson initiative in which each supporter lobbies family members to get them involved wherever they live in the United States.

Naturally, voting is not the only way to be involved, meaning even non-citizens can put up signs, pass out bumper stickers and raise his visibility.

While Georgia Hispanics aren’t likely to soon elect one of their own governors, the rate of Latino registration means the day may not be far off when they could be a factor in the outcome of who does win.

Walter Jones is the bureau chief for the Morris News Service and has been covering state politics since 1998. He can be reached at walter.jones@morris.com or (404) 589-8424.


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