Latino voter registration up or down? Nobody really knows

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Romney and Obama face off for the latino vote

This combination of 2012 file photos shows U.S. President Barack Obama, left, during a meeting in Iowa University and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in Delaware. (AP/Carolyn Kaster, Evan Vucci)

Are nationwide voter registration numbers among minorities in this all-important election year up or down?

Well, it apparently depends on who is asked.

Or what data source is sought.

Last month, the Washington Post reported that voter registration among Hispanics and blacks had decreased 5 percent and 7 percent respectively from 2008 to 2010 – hinting at vulnerability for President Barack Obama. Three days later, those figures — taken from the U.S. Census voting and registration supplement survey — were questioned.

And not all the challenges came from Camp Obama.

Registration efforts in heavy Hispanic regions and reaching out to the Latino vote will likely be on of the topics discussed this week at the 29th annual conference of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. More than 1,000 Hispanic leaders are expected to attend the three-day event in Orlando, known as the “Latino political convention,” where both Obama and presumed Republican nominee Mitt Romney will address them. The powwow comes just as the number of projected Latino voters for November falls from about 12 million, according to NALEO, to 10.5 million, according to the William C. Velasquez Institute.

Immediately after the discrepancy was reported last month, Obama campaign operatives and liberal media bloggers went on the defensive, basically falling on the argument that the figures are unreliable because it depends on voluntary reporting (although, for that matter, so does Hispanic identification), other groups point out other flaws and conflicting data that shows a reverse trend.

In any event, it makes the debate interesting. If endless.

“There is no perfectly reliable source of data on how many Latinos are registered to vote at any given time,” said Rosalind Gold, director of policy, research and advocacy at the NALEO.

The Census figures “just may not be accurate,” Gold told VOXXI. People may genuinely not know whether they are registered or not, she explained. Another method uses a computer software application and state voter rolls to determine the number of registered voters by counting Hispanic-sounding surnames, which is certainly not perfect either.

“That’s going to be more accurate as far as who is registered,” Gold said. “But it may not be accurate as far as who’s Latino.”

One-time presidential candidate and former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, for example, would not be flagged as Latino despite having a Mexican-born mother and living in Mexico City until he was 13. Neither would new Florida voter Arielle Marcus, 18, whose mother’s family is Cuban.

Using that imperfect application, however, NALEO collected data on three states with large Hispanic presence: Texas, Florida and California. And the group found the opposite trend than the one shown by the Census figures.

California recorded the biggest increase of the three with 3.1 million Latino registered voters in 2010, up from 2008’s  2.8 million. Texas followed with 2.8 million, an increase of 200,000 voters.  And in Florida, a key state for the presidential race where the Post story showed a loss of 140,000 Hispanic voters. However, NALEO’s numbers found the Latino voter roll grew from 1.4 to 1.6 million.

“All data sources have limitations. You cannot rely solely on Census data for trends,” Gold said, but also added that it “bears watching” as a possible indicator of the future. “This is the biggest drop in registrations that we’ve seen in this particular data source,” since the Census began to take note of the registration numbers every two years, she said.

Others are apparently taking note as well. Washington Post writer Krissah Thompson, who wrote the May 4 article, told VOXXI the subject came up when she met with leaders of National Council of La Raza in Washington last week. “We were talking about what was new for 2012. They pointed me to the Census data,” Thompson said.

Antonio Gonzalez, president of the William C. Velasquez Institute, and Maria Teresa Kumar, executive director of Voto Latino – a non-partisan group focused on registering young Hispanics with outreach efforts that include joining Maná on the Mexican rock band’s U.S. concert tour – were also quoted in the Post story expressing concern.

They and others believe the numbers may have really tapered off for legitimate reasons.

“We know Latino and black communities are impacted disproportionately in the recession. They lose their jobs, then move and often don’t re-register right away,” Thompson said. And the Pew Center of States found that, for example, in swing state Nevada’s Clark County, election officials discovered that 20 percent of voters on their rolls were no longer at the listed addresses.

New voter registration laws in several states also make it more difficult for groups to register voters. As a result, for example, the League of Women Voters, one of the nation’s most organized get-out-the-vote campaigners, have given up efforts in Florida.

In fact before bashing the story in a blog post on the barackobama.com website, Thompson added, the Obama camp seemed genuinely concerned about that when she spoke to them in reporting the article. That’s why she was “surprised they pushed back on the statistics so hard,” Thompson told VOXXI.

Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg was quoted as saying that the falling registration numbers was “obviously an area of concern.” And the Republican National Committee spokeswoman hailed it as a success in having “closed the gap in key battleground states.”

“We had used the same data source and we see the same numbers,” said Mark Lopez, associate director at the Pew Hispanic Center. “All those numbers come straight from the Census Bureau. And even when it comes to Hispanic identity, we rely on people to say they are Hispanic.”

Because Florida is the only state that allows voters to identify themselves as Hispanics and other states do not have measuring sticks, Lopez says that the Census’ Current Population Survey, from which the voting survey is taken, is the best source of data to date for statistical information.

“The CPS is great because it’s large and gives us a demographic picture we can’t get anywhere else,” Lopez told VOXXI.

But he and the others who take the numbers more seriously also believe that the picture will be different two or three months before the election.

And nobody suggests that the real or perceived decrease in voter registration will translate to a decrease in ballots at the polls.

Gold, from NALEO, points at the Latino voting trend in the last three presidential elections. In 2000, 5.9 million Hispanics voted. That number rose to 7.6 million in 2004 and 9.7 million in 2008.

“We think there will continue to be an increase and we’re projecting 12.2 million Latinos will actually vote in 2012,” she said.

“Not withstanding the information on the voter registration data.”

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