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Hispanic voter wave not building

Published September 10, 2006

LOS ANGELES - Immigration protests that drew hundreds of thousands of flag-waving demonstrators to the nation's streets in the spring promised a potent political legacy - a surge of new Hispanic voters.

"Today We March, Tomorrow We Vote," they proclaimed.

But an Associated Press review of voter registration figures from Chicago, Denver, Houston, Atlanta and other major urban areas that had large rallies found no sign of a new voter boom that could sway elections. There was a rise in Los Angeles, where 500,000 protested in March, but it was more of a trickle than a torrent.

Protest organizers - principally unions, Hispanic advocacy groups and the Catholic Church - acknowledge that it has been hard to translate street activism into voting clout, though they insist they can reach their goal of 1-million new voters by 2008.

"I was anticipating a huge jump in registration. I didn't see it," said Jess Cervantes, a veteran California political operative whose company analyzes Hispanic voting trends. "When you have an emotional response, it takes time to evolve."

It's impossible to count exactly how many new registrants were inspired by the new movement because counties typically don't ask for race or ethnicity.

New registrations were up this year compared to last year, but they were well below the numbers in 2004, and the increase is no surprise at a time Democrats and Republicans are struggling for control of Congress. Even without that factor, the numbers don't indicate the watershed awakening advocates had envisioned.

The emotional response that erupted in huge rallies across the country last spring was a reaction to federal legislation that would have overhauled current immigration policy, including criminalizing the estimated 11-million immigrants here illegally.

While that legislation is effectively dead this year, immigration remains a campaign issue.

Hispanic voters are a pivotal voting bloc, especially with their numbers projected to continue to grow. But they have long voted in numbers far below their share of the population, in part because many are under 18 or not U.S. citizens.

A study by the Pew Hispanic Center found that while Hispanics accounted for half the nation's population growth between the 2000 and 2004 elections, they represented only one-tenth of the increase in votes cast.

The lack of political experience helps explain why the flow of new registrations has been halting.

Some activists acknowledge that their groups have yet to master the nuances of voter registration drives - typically a face-to-face task more complex than mobilizing a march. Others complain that political parties with the most to gain haven't financed registration efforts.

"Until the money is spent, 'Today We March, Tomorrow We Vote' will always just be a slogan," said Nativo Lopez, president of the California-based Mexican-American Political Association.

"A million new registrations would cost about $10-million. Is anybody willing to pay that? I haven't seen it," Lopez said.

What's more, no galvanizing leader of the immigrant-rights movement has emerged, and the largest pool of potential voters - young people - tends to be the hardest to reach.

The AP reviewed new registration numbers over several years in metropolitan areas that include Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Jose, Calif.; Phoenix and Tucson, Ariz.; Dallas and Houston; Chicago; Atlanta; Denver; and Jacksonville and St. Petersburg.

[Last modified September 10, 2006, 00:39:24]

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