NORTH LAS VEGAS, Nev. – Margarita Saldana looks around her community and sees poor-paying jobs and discrimination against workers who don't speak English. When she contemplates how to vote on Election Day, she sees little difference between President Bush and Sen. John Kerry (search).
"They don't think of Latinos," Saldana said in Spanish. "They don't do what they say."
Saldana, a 57-year-old homemaker from Mexico, is part of a flood of immigrants who have transformed the voter landscape in Nevada and could help determine the presidential election — if they vote.
"The cohesiveness of the Latino electorate ... can be the bump that a candidate needs to do well enough to win the election," said Louis DeSipio, a political science professor at University of California, Irvine, who specializes in Hispanic politics.
Numbering nearly 40 million, Hispanics are the largest minority and the fastest-growing segment of the electorate. In the battleground states of Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado, Hispanics represent 26 percent of the total population.
Yet Hispanics have not voted in numbers equal to their size. Census data shows Hispanic voter turnout declined from 1998 to 2002. Immigration issues, language barriers and a lack of voter information have kept them away from the polls, experts say.
"We have gone sometimes where we have talked to over 600 people in a row and not one of them is eligible to register to vote," said Andres Ramirez with Voices for Working Families, a national nonpartisan group that hopes to boost voting among minority groups in seven states including Nevada.
"It's going to be a lengthy process of getting Hispanics to participate in the political process," Ramirez said. "First getting citizenship status. Second, getting them registered. And then getting them educated about the political process."
Part of the problem is tied to immigrant experiences in their native countries. Adriana Martinez, chair of the Nevada Democratic Party, said she has heard immigrants tell stories of corruption and voter intimidation.
"For the most part, Hispanics who have come from different countries feel that their vote won't make a difference," Martinez said. "I hate to hear stories like that because I know ... they can make a difference."
In this year's close presidential election, Hispanics are receiving unprecedented attention from groups sponsoring voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives. Both major presidential campaigns have established Hispanic coalitions — "Unidos con Kerry" and "Viva Bush" — and millions of dollars have been spent on Spanish-language ads.
In 2000, Democratic nominee Al Gore received the support of 62 percent of Hispanics while Bush received 35 percent, according to exit polls. Kerry led Bush nearly 2-1 in a poll of Hispanics this summer.
"Hispanics need to realize that if they continue to remain absent on Election Day, we can't hope to make significant changes in the Hispanic agenda," said White House legal counsel Alberto Gonzalez. "Because politicians pay attention to whether or not Hispanics participate in the political process."