JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Eligible to vote for the first time, 21-year-old Valerie Figueroa will play a part in the presidential election this November, joining a throng of new Hispanic voters who may make a difference in the race's outcome in Florida and possibly the nation.
Since 2000, Florida's Hispanic population has grown by more than 477,000, according to U.S. Census figures released Thursday, putting the number at 3,160,287. Hispanics now account for 18.5 percent of the state's population of 17 million and about 14 percent of the state's eligible voters. In 2000, Hispanics made up 16.7 percent of the population.
Figueroa, a telecommunications production major at the University of Florida, said she is an independent who supports Democrat John Kerry (search) in the presidential race, but plans to vote for Republican Mel Martinez (search) in the U.S. Senate race because he is Hispanic.
Figueroa, active in both Hispanic and Puerto Rican student groups, said she believes the increase in the number of Hispanics in Florida will translate into political power.
"We are growing and we want change. As we grow, our impact on elections will grow along with us," she said.
Joseph Agostini, a spokesman for the Republican Party of Florida (search), said the importance of the Hispanic vote is evident in the amount of money both parties have spent on media buys seeking their votes. "They will be vital to a victory in November," he said.
The Pew Hispanic Center in Washington, D.C., said the number of Hispanic voters nationwide will have increased by about 20 percent, to 16 million, when compared to the 2000 presidential election.
In Florida, 44 percent of the Hispanic voters are naturalized citizens, but Florida-born Hispanics account for 83 percent of newly eligible Hispanic voters, the Pew report said.
"Nearly eight of out of every 10 new Hispanic eligible voters since the last presidential election is a native-born U.S. citizen who has become old enough to vote as opposed to an immigrant who has become a citizen through naturalization," Pew said in a report, "The Hispanic Electorate in 2004."
Roberto Suro, director of the Pew Hispanic Center (search), said it's hard to assess the impact of Hispanic voters in Florida.
"It really depends on who votes," he said, noting that Cuban voters in the Miami area have traditionally voted for Republicans in national and congressional elections, while the growing Puerto Rican community in central Florida has traditionally cast its ballots for Democrats.
The forced removal of Elian Gonzalez (search) from the Miami home of his Cuban relatives brought Cuban voters to the polls in record numbers to vote for George Bush because they were unhappy with the Clinton-Gore administration's handling of the case, Suro said.
"The share of the Republicans who voted was historically high," Suro said. But, he added, "There is no reason to automatically assume that will happen again."
Nationally, Hispanics traditionally have favored the Democratic Party in presidential elections, but that support has declined in recent years. In 1996, 72 percent of Hispanics voted to re-elect President Clinton, while 21 percent voted for Republican Bob Dole (search). Four years later, Democrat Al Gore (search) won 62 percent of the Hispanic vote and Bush picked up 35 percent.
The Census showed other Hispanic communities around the nation are booming — and getting national attention.
The number of Hispanics living in Nevada's Clark County, the state's most populous, grew by 25 percent during the first three years of the millennium, adding to their political clout in a battleground state.
And in Colorado, the fact that an estimated 90,000 Hispanics have moved to the state has not gone unnoticed by Republicans and Democrats. Both parties are offering pamphlets and Internet sites in Spanish, and providing spokesmen for Spanish radio and television stations.