Hispanics show rising influence as likely voters

ATLANTA --- Hispanic leaders realistically note that their voting bloc isn't large yet, but they suggest it holds some surprising strength in pockets around the state and might startle people soon with how much sway they're acquiring in a short time.

A recent analysis by the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, GALEO, estimates just 2.2 percent of the state's registered voters are Hispanic, based on projections forward of a count of Spanish surnames done in 2003. No one would call 2 percent a lot.

But if you nod off, you could be astonished the next time you glance and discover that the number has quickly reached respectable proportions.

Just look at the pace of the past four years. Overall voter rolls in Georgia have grown 23 percent, but the number of Hispanic voters has ballooned 389 percent, according to the report.

A lot can happen in the blink of an eye at that pace. Consider a few local numbers:

Columbia County: 240 percent Hispanic growth versus 34 percent for the overall population.

Richmond County: 192 percent Hispanic growth versus 14 percent for the overall population.

Granted, the percentages are based on a tiny starting number, but GALEO and the Spanish-language media are conducting voter drives across the state to keep driving the pace.

GALEO is also partnering with counterpart organizations supporting other ethnic groups in the registration drives and a get-out-the-vote campaign next fall. There's a little irony in that black leaders could be helping Hispanics to surpass blacks as the most significant minority in the state, considering black registration growth has only been 31 percent over the past four years, a tenth of the Hispanic rate.

Jerry Gonzalez, the GALEO executive director, sheds a little light on why Hispanics are registering so fast.

First, there are thousands of legal immigrants who never felt motivated to register before. Many have undocumented relatives and now see a threat to their families in the efforts to crack down on illegal immigration.

Second, many Hispanics had believed their votes would have little impact, so they never bothered to register. What's changing is the force they are amassing in various cities and counties.

A third factor that Mr. Gonzalez didn't mention is New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson's presidential campaign. Strong candidates have always drawn people to register and vote, so simply having his name on the ballot in Georgia's primary will add Hispanics to the voter rolls.