Nearly 30 percent more Texas Latinos went to the polls in 2016 than in 2012, reducing the participation gap with other Texas voters and signaling to some observers that elections will become increasingly competitive in the Lone Star State.
Non-Latino voters increased by a more modest 9.2 percent between presidential elections, according to newly released numbers from the Texas Legislative Council.
The percentage of registered Latinos who went to the polls also increased from 2012, from 47.2 percent to 49.8 percent. But that turnout rate remained well below that of non-Latino voters, which was 62.9 percent in 2016. That represented a decrease from 2012 when turnout was 65.4 percent among non-Latino voters.
As a result, the share of the electorate with a Spanish surname increased from 17.2 percent in 2012 to 19.4 percent in 2016. Latinos make up 38 percent of the Texas population, but historically vote at lower rates than Latinos in other states and other groups in Texas.
Texas Democrats, who don’t hold a single statewide seat, have long awaited a voter surge among Latinos that could break the grip of the Republicans on elected positions in the state.
Rice University political scientist Mark Jones called the increase “notable, but not dramatic,” and said it mirrored jumps in past presidential elections.
“The Texas electorate becomes more Latino and less Anglo with every passing electoral cycle,” Jones said. “But the increase is fueled primarily by natural demographic trends rather than by a dramatic spike in participation rates among Latinos.”
State officials obtained the numbers using a count based on a list of Spanish surnames; the numbers don’t account for every Latino voter.
Groups that advocate for greater Latino political participation were heartened by the numbers, which confirmed trends seen during early voting and in pre-election polling.
“I think it shows there’s a transition happening in Texas,” said Matt Barreto, co-founder of the polling and research firm Latino Decisions. “Latino voters in Texas are becoming more engaged. … That’s a huge amount of movement in four years.” Barreto said a continuation of the trend could further reduce the gap between Republican and Democrat presidential candidates in the state.
President Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton 52 percent to 43 percent in Texas, compared with former Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s 16-point advantage in Texas over President Barack Obama in 2012.
“It gets it closer to battleground state status,” Barreto said.
According to an analysis of early voting figures in 20 large counties, Derek Ryan, a political consultant and former research director of the Texas Republican Party, found that new voters are driving the increase in Latino participation: 18.7 percent of ballots cast by voters with Spanish surnames came from those with no electoral history in Texas; for non-Latinos, only 12.8 percent came from new voters.
Voter registration among Latinos also increased 20 percent over 2012 compared with 14 percent for non-Latinos. Lydia Camarillo, vice president of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, said the registration and turnout numbers for 2016 elections are higher than her group anticipated, but she said Texas remains a state that puts high barriers to voter registration.
Camarillo said her group is pushing for legislative changes that would make registering easier: One bill, sponsored by Austin Democratic state Rep. Celia Israel, would allow Texans to register to vote online, as more than 30 other states already do. Another bill would allow voters to register on election day.
In 2013, a bill allowing online voter registration passed the Texas Senate but not the House; in 2015 a similar bipartisan bill died after objections from Harris County officials who said it would open up the voter registration system to fraud.
“When we ask potential voters why they didn’t register, they say it’s not because they didn’t care, but that in most cases they don’t start paying attention to elections until about 10 days out,” Camarillo said. Texas law requires voters to register 30 days before an election.
Camarillo said it’s not yet clear if confusion over the state’s voter ID law, which was the subject of a pre-election lawsuit, dampened the Latino vote.
Latino turnout in Central Texas slightly outpaced the state average: Travis County saw an increase of 33 percent, Hays of County 34 percent and Williamson County of 37 percent.
Eyes on elections
This story is part of the American-Statesman’s ongoing coverage of Latino participation in Texas politics. In the fall of 2016, reporter Jeremy Schwartz and other members of the Statesman’s investigative team conducted a first-of-its kind analysis that showed Latinos are significantly underrepresented in local governments in Texas. Although they make up 38 percent of the state’s population, Latinos account for only 10 percent of its mayors and county judges.