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Latinos are the biggest ethnic group in Texas, but their political power lags behind

Voters walk into a polling place in Uvalde, Texas, on Nov. 8, 2022.
Mark Felix
/
AFP via Getty Images
Voters walk into a polling place in Uvalde, Texas, on Nov. 8, 2022.

AUSTIN, Texas — Latinos in Texas have officially eclipsed non-Hispanic whites as the dominant ethnic group in the state, but the group's political power has yet to catch up.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Latinos made up 40.2% of Texas' population last summer, while the non-Hispanic white share was 39.8%. The development was firstreported by The Texas Tribune.

Experts say Latinos have been the biggest ethnic population in the state for a while now, but undercounting in the census delayed anything official.

Michael Li, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, says this is a huge milestone for Latinos in Texas.

"But when it comes to political power," Li says, "Latinos still are very underrepresented in Texas."

Li says Latinos in Texas are underrepresented compared to their population size when it comes to both participation and representation in politics.

And there are a lot of reasons for this.

Texas Latinos are still a young population

Arturo Vargas — CEO of NALEO, a nonpartisan organization that promotes the participation of Latinos in the national political process — says one of the biggest reasons is that the state's Latino population has a lower median age than non-Latinos.

"While Latinos are now the largest ethnic group in the state of Texas, they are in fact the majority of the young people and children in Texas," he says. "Now over 50% of all Texans 18 years and younger are Latinos. So, a much larger share of the Latino population is unable to vote simply because they are not old enough."

Vargas says it could take a lot of time for all these young Latinos in Texas to become a significant political force as well, because young people don't vote at the same rates as older people.

"So there are two strikes against Latino participation that come with the youthfulness of the Latino community," Vargas says.

The Texas State Capitol in Austin
Eric Gay / AP
/
AP
The Texas State Capitol in Austin

Concerns about voter access

There are also structural barriers, Li says. Among them is redistricting. He says lawmakers have drawn various political maps in the past decade or so that either concentrate or split up the voting power of Latinos.

"There also are things like discriminatory voter ID laws — which arguably target Latinos — requiring people to bring IDs that Latinos don't have in as high numbers as the Anglo population or the Black population," says Li, whose Brennan Center has advocated against what it says are burdensome photo ID requirements.

Voting and civil rights advocateshave long blamed Texas policies — mostly from Republican leadership — at least partly for the gap between Latino population and Latino voting power in the state. They say changes to those policies are essential to getting more Latinos to the polls during elections.

Closing the gap

There are groups and activists across the state trying to close the gap through community organizing.

At a recent outdoor concert in East Austin, a part of town that has historically been home to mostly Latino and Black communities, Susana Carranza set up a booth to talk to people about voting and upcoming elections — specifically to remind folks there will be some constitutional amendments on the ballot this November.

She says she tries to be in public gatherings as much as possible. She doesn't expect to register new voters every time, but she says answering questions and talking to people consistently over time eventually convinces them to register.

And Carranza says this is particularly important with Latino voters. She says Latino families often have less experience with U.S. elections and they are more likely to be apprehensive when it comes to any paperwork or process related to the government.

"You have to see that repeatedly in friendly environments for you to think it's OK," she says. "And you've got to see your peers doing that."

Paul Saldaña has a group called Habla y Vota, which is a nonpartisan political action committee working to increase voter engagement among Latinos in the Austin area. He says he's focused on showing up as often as possible where Latinos are already gathering, at places such as bakeries, restaurants and outdoor events.

"And we help them register to vote and answer any questions and all that good stuff," Saldaña says. "So, it starts with that. It has to be grassroots-oriented. You have to have initiatives and do work that is culturally relevant. And again, go to where our people are."

Underinvestment

But this kind of work — especially on a large scale — takes a lot of investing.

Li says this lack of investment in Latinos is another huge reason they don't have the political influence that's commensurate with their population size.

Li says political parties are still trying to understand Latino voters, and that parties will often invest in voters they can predict and understand better.

"Because it's much easier if you've got a limited campaign budget to say, 'OK, I am going to target white suburban women who I know will vote if I simply give them the right message' or 'I will invest my time in turning out Black voters because there is a lot more bang for the buck,' " he says.

Parties are slowly starting to pay more attention to Latino voters, who have typically leaned toward Democrats. During last year's midterms, Republican and conservative groups tried to make inroads with Latino voters, including in South Texas.

Vargas of NALEO says governmental and political officials should be doing a better job of not just courting, but also meeting the needs of, Latino communities in the years to come.

"These [census] numbers mean that the future of Texas depends on the economic and social success of Latinos in that state," he says. "All aspects of Texas society are going to depend on whether or not Latinos are able to succeed and fully develop their potential in the coming years."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ashley Lopez
Ashley Lopez is a political correspondent for NPR based in Austin, Texas. She joined NPR in May 2022. Prior to NPR, Lopez spent more than six years as a health care and politics reporter for KUT, Austin's public radio station. Before that, she was a political reporter for NPR Member stations in Florida and Kentucky. Lopez is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and grew up in Miami, Florida.