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Latinos are Texas' largest ethnic group, but that doesn't equate to political power

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Latinos are officially the largest ethnic group in Texas, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The federal agency reported recently that, as of last summer, Latinos eclipsed non-Hispanic white Texans in terms of population. But experts say this population growth is a long way from translating into more political power. NPR's Ashley Lopez reports.

ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: Susana Carranza is a local organizer. She recently attended an outdoor concert in East Austin to talk to people about voting and upcoming elections, specifically to remind folks that there will be some constitutional amendments on the ballot this November.

SUSANA CARRANZA: I forgot how many there are going to be but probably four or five. Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: OK. I'll be looking for them. Thank you all very much for the information. Gracias.

LOPEZ: Carranza says she tries to be at public gatherings like this as much as possible. She says Latino families often have less experience with U.S. elections, and they're more likely to be apprehensive when it comes to any paperwork or process related to the government. So they require a bit more face time.

CARRANZA: So you have to see that repeatedly in friendly environments for you to think it's OK, and you got to see your peers doing that.

LOPEZ: According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Latinos in Texas make up 40.2% of the population, recently narrowly outgrowing the state's non-Hispanic white population, which is now 39.8%. Michael Li with the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law says this is a huge milestone for Latinos in Texas.

MICHAEL LI: But when it comes to political power, Latinos still are very underrepresented in Texas.

LOPEZ: Li says Latinos in Texas underperform compared to their population size when it comes to both participation and representation in politics.

LI: There also are things like discriminatory voter ID laws, which in a lot of ways really target Latinos, requiring people to bring IDs that Latinos just don't have in as high numbers as the Anglo population or the Black population.

LOPEZ: Redistricting is another hurdle. 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. But the biggest barrier is just demographics, says Arturo Vargas with NALEO, a nonpartisan group that promotes the political participation of Latinos.

ARTURO VARGAS: 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. 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're not old enough.

LOPEZ: Vargas says it could take a lot of time for all these young Latinos in Texas to become a significant political force as well. But this kind of work, especially on a large scale, takes a lot of time and money. Michael Li with the Brennan Center says political parties don't often invest in Latinos because, one, they're still trying to understand Latino voters, and two, they will often invest in voters they can better predict.

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

LOPEZ: And Arturo Vargas with NALEO says the lack of political power among Latinos isn't just holding back Latinos.

VARGAS: It's also important to acknowledge that these numbers mean that the future of Texas depends on the economic and social success of Latinos in that state. 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.

LOPEZ: Vargas says it's inevitable that Latinos will be a political force in Texas, but at this point, it's just a matter of time. Ashley Lopez, NPR News, Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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.
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