When it comes to politics, Tuesday’s elections are getting all the headlines. But for a glimpse of what’s to come beyond that, it’s worth paying attention to North Carolina’s changing electoral landscape.
Earlier this year, the Institute for Southern Studies issued a report called “The Future of Young Latino Voters in the South.” Through a detailed analysis, the report looks at the impact of Latinos coming of age and flexing their citizen rights.
By 2020, for example, over 1.6 million Latino youth will become eligible voters in the South. If trends hold, this number will jump to 3 million Latino voters by 2024 across the region.
There are two trends driving this growth. First, the overall growth of the Latino population on the American South, and North Carolina in particular, is surging. In 1990 there were 76, 726 self-identified Hispanics in N.C. In the latest census data, that number has grown almost 12 times to more than 890,000 – giving North Carolina the fastest growing Latino population in the country.
Second, a disproportionate percent of the Latino population is young. While the median age of all North Carolinians is 35.3 years, the median age for Latinos is 24. Forty-one percent of all Hispanics in North Carolina are under the age of 17. And though 9 percent of our state’s total population is Latino, 14 percent of school-aged children are Latino.
Of all the states in the south, North Carolina has the fastest estimated rate of growth among eligible Latino voters (expected to grow 129 percent within the next 16 years due in part to 320,000 young Latinos turning 18 during this time).
To date, Latinos have largely been under-represented at the polls. Because of young age distribution and citizenship rates, only 28 percent of the Latino population in North Carolina was eligible to vote in 2014. In this election, only 2.1 percent of the registered voters in North Carolina are Latino (versus 70.5 percent who are white). But the coming influx of U.S.-born, Latino citizen-voters is going to have significant implications for our electoral landscape and the politics and policies of our state.
Politicians across all parties are going to have to work to earn these votes. In a 2014 survey of North Carolina Latinos by the Partnership for a New Economy, 71 percent said that immigration reform was very important. However, jobs and the economy emerged as the top issue of concern, and immigration tied with health-care for second place. Given the current economic insecurity of Latinos in our state, this should come as no surprise.
According to a Pew Research Center study, the median annual income of Hispanics that are 16 and older is $19,000. The poverty rate among Latinos 17 and younger is 41 percent, Additionally, 34 percent of Hispanics are without health insurance, and home ownership rates are at 42 percent. Addressing these issues is going to be critical not only to earning votes, but for creating a more sustainable future for our state.
In a swing state like North Carolina, a large infusion of new, impressionable voters is also significant. In 2012, Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney won North Carolina by just 92,000 votes. Four years later, Barack Obama won it by only 14,000 votes. In this year’s election, the nation’s eyes have been on North Carolina as the ultimate swing state. With more than 300,000 new Latino voters expected to join the voter roles by 2032, which way will things swing?
Although 44 percent of Hispanic voters in North Carolina are registered Democrats, 37 percent are Unaffiliated. And younger voters are shown to be more likely to be unaffiliated than their elders. Being able to court and earn these votes for all parties is going to be critical.
Part of the challenge is engaging these emerging and eligible voters. Hispanics continue to have the lowest voter registration and voter turnout of all other demographic groups. In 2012, less than half of all eligible Latino voters nationally turned out to vote (compared to 64 percent of white voters). This was even lower with Latino Millennials (38 percent). This said, only 31 percent of eligible Latino across the country said they were contacted about registering or voting.
By recognizing the potential voting power of young Latino voters, directly addressing issues of importance to them, and strengthening outreach and engagement efforts, future politicians stand to reap great rewards – as does our democracy.
Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Impact, a fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and author of “Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives.” Stephen Martin is deputy chief of staff at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.