WASHINGTON – Only half of voting-age Hispanics in Maryland were U.S. citizens in 2000 and therefore eligible to vote, one of the lowest percentages in the country, the Census reported Thursday.
Of the 155,971 Hispanics over the age of 18 in Maryland, just 80,121 were citizens, or 51.4 percent, the report said. Nationally, the percent of Hispanic citizens over the age of 18 was 62.2 percent.
Most advocates said they were not surprised by the numbers, but all were aware of their political implications.
“Voting is a very important way to get political power,” said Hector Torres, executive director of the Governor’s Commission on Hispanic Affairs. “For all communities, voting becomes a very important tool.”
The report comes at a time when Maryland’s Hispanic population in general is increasing at a faster rate than the rest of the state’s population. From April 1, 2000, until July 1, 2002, the Hispanic voting-age population grew by 14.8 percent, while the non-Hispanic voting-age population increased only 3 percent, according to the Maryland Department of Planning.
“The growth has been tremendous in the last 15-20 years,” said Lisa Navarrete, a spokeswoman for the National Council of La Raza, a Washington-based advocacy group for Hispanic Americans.
Unlike other ethnic groups that have traditionally aligned themselves with a political party, the Hispanic vote is “up for grabs,” she said. Though Republicans used to write off the Hispanic vote to Democrats, she believes that Maryland’s moderate political climate means both parties can make a pitch for Hispanics.
“This is a group not in any party’s pocket,” Navarrete said. “Latinos vote based on the issues and on the person. If a person is seen as responsible or responsive to the community, they will get the Latino vote regardless of the party.”
Neither the state nor county boards of elections keep voting statistics for Hispanics, but their growing numbers can be seen in polling materials.
In Montgomery County, where more than 12 percent of the total population is Hispanic, all voting and election information is offered in Spanish as required by the Voting Rights Act. Prince George’s County, though not required to do so by law, voluntarily supplies Spanish voting materials for its 8 percent Hispanic population.
The Hispanic numbers were part of the Census Bureau’s profile of the entire voting-age population, based on the 2000 Census. The report said Maryland had 3.9 million voting-age residents, 93.8 percent of whom were citizens, slightly better than the national average of 92.4 percent.
Also in Maryland, 97 percent of the 2.6 million whites of voting age were citizens, while 95.1 percent of 1.035 million voting-age blacks were citizens. That was 1 percentage point higher than the national average for whites and less than 1 percentage point lower than the national average for blacks.
Torres said the lag in Hispanic voting eligibility could be blamed on the fact that permanent residents must live in the country for five years before beginning the naturalization process. Others said the low number could be due to Hispanics with immigration cards, illegal immigrants and the overall high percentage of foreign-born Hispanics living in United States.
Gustavo Torres, executive director of the immigrant advocacy group Casa de Maryland, said he thought the number of Hispanic citizens in the state would have been much lower. Torres, who is no relation to Hector Torres, said that even though the numbers are higher than he expected, individuals and organizations must still work with legislators to help speed Hispanics through the long citizenship list.
“More political power means the opportunity to make political changes and a full contribution to society” as opposed to just an economic or social contribution, he said.
Navarrete said that aiding Hispanics in the naturalization process will also help boost the voter turnout, though she said the work can be done by the political parties as well as the government.
“The parties tend to focus on likely voters, but there is a whole group of potential voters out there too,” she said.
Hector Torres said the governor’s commission works with organizations throughout the state to increase voter registration, including the Maryland Office for New Americans. That work will increase the Hispanic voice in the state, and give Hispanics a greater hand in the process of government.
“It’s very important to become civically active in politics and all aspects of American life,” he said. “My hope is that as time goes on, more of us (Hispanics) will vote, strengthening our influence.”
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