Latino Voters Could Swing Georgia Blue

Surprisingly strong Latino showings in the Georgia primaries could hint at a record showing on Election Day.

As many as 27.3 million Latino voters are eligible to vote this fall – a record number that could have a decisive impact in this year’s elections. But will Latino voters turn out at the polls?

A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that 69 percent of Latinos said they were “absolutely certain” to vote this fall, down from 77 percent in 2012. Moreover, according to Census data, actual Latino turnout historically lags that of other groups, with a total turnout rate of 48 percent in 2012 (compared to 64 percent for whites and 66 percent for blacks).

But in the emerging battleground state of Georgia, there are some intriguing indicators that Latino turnout this year could defy these lackluster projections, and in a significant way.

Though Georgia has long been ruby-red in its presidential choices, recent polls show Donald Trump leading in the state by an average of just 2.8 points, according to RealClearPolitics. This puts Georgia within striking distance of a Democratic win for the first time since 1992.

Latinos now make up 9.4 percent of Georgia’s population, up from 8.8 percent in 2010, according to Census figures, including an estimated 330,000 eligible voters. While Latinos still make up less than 5 percent of the state’s electorate, Mitt Romney won the state by just 308,460 votes in 2012. Assuming they lean heavily Democratic, as Latinos do nationally, high turnout among Georgia Latinos could tip the balance November 8.

One indicator of this potential clout is the exceptionally strong Latino turnout in Georgia’s presidential primary in March, particularly among younger voters. “If people turn out in the primaries, they’re more likely to turn out in the general election,” says Jerry Gonzalez, Executive Director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials (GALEO).

In Gwinnett County northeast of Atlanta, for example, where Latinos make up 20.4 percent of the population, 26.1 percent of registered Latino voters cast ballots in the presidential primaries, according to data collected by the Georgia Secretary of State. That’s just shy of the national turnout rate of 28.5 percent.

Turnout was even stronger in other large counties with sizeable Latino populations. In DeKalb County, for instance, which includes a portion of Atlanta and is 9.1 percent Hispanic, 33.9 percent of registered voters turned out to vote. In Fulton County, which includes Atlanta, Latino turnout was 31.9 percent, and in Cobb County, which is 12.6 percent Hispanic, turnout was 32.5 percent.

Particularly telling was the turnout rate among Georgia’s young Latino voters, ages 18-24, the vast majority of whom voted in the Democratic primary. Of the 4,224 Latino voters in this age group registered in Gwinnett County, for instance, the Democratic primary turnout exceeded the rate for both whites and blacks: 15 percent among men, compared to 10.6 percent for blacks and 8.8 percent for whites; and 17 percent among women, compared to 14.3 percent for blacks and 8.9 percent for whites.

Just as significantly, 21 percent of the registered Latino voters in Gwinnett County are voters ages 18-24. By comparison, registered Latino voters ages 65 and over made up just 6 percent of the county’s electorate. In fact, 42 percent of the registered Latino voters in Gwinnett County are under the age of 35.

The absolute numbers of Latino voters in Georgia are still quite small, and despite an uptick in registrations, the Secretary of State reports that 117,650 Latino voters were registered as of October 1 (10 days before the registration deadline) – or about 35 percent of the eligible voting population. Moreover, trends in Georgia may not reflect what could happen in other parts of the country. Georgia is one of the few states to collect voter information based on race, age, and gender, which makes comparisons to other states difficult, if not impossible.

Still, the turnout data in Georgia could be an important sign of a future Latino electorate that is both progressive and engaged, says Phil Keisling, director of the Center for Public Service of the Hatfield School of Government at Portland State University in Oregon. Both Keisling and GALEO’s Gonzalez credit Trump and his anti-immigrant demagoguery for spurring Latino voters, and younger Latinos in particular, to turn out this year. “We are seeing a mobilizing movement in the Latino community,” says Gonzalez. “People have heard a lot of rhetoric about ‘deportation forces’ going into our neighborhoods, going into our churches, going into our schools and separating families. Immigration is top of mind for many voters.”

Keisling likened today’s young Latino voters to young black voters during the civil rights era, who have retained high rates of registration and voter turnout throughout their lives. “Trump has managed to motivate them in ways that they have not been motivated before,” he says. “You’re seeing among younger Latinos in particular a recognition of the importance of voting.”

Whether young Latinos act on that recognition could not only tip the balance this election but set the course of U.S. electoral politics in the long-term.