Hispanics now make up a majority of the population in the central San Joaquin Valley, new U.S. Census Bureau figures show.
When will their growing numbers be reflected at the ballot box? Hispanics have been less likely to vote than other racial and ethnic groups, polls have found. They will have to overcome demographic trends before voting patterns change here, Valley officials and politicians say.
As of July 1, 2007, Hispanics made up 51 percent of the population in the five counties of the central San Joaquin Valley, according to Census Bureau figures released last week. That's up one percentage point from the previous year.
In the most recent tally, Madera County joined Tulare and Merced counties as so-called "minority-majority" areas, with more than half of all residents counted as Hispanic.
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Hispanics are just short of becoming the majority in Fresno and Kings counties. Each county is 48 percent Hispanic.
"The number of Hispanics is growing and the political participation is starting to grow," said state Assembly Member Juan Arambula, D-Fresno. "But it's going to take a while before the voting numbers come up to reflect the population." Hispanics made up 31 percent of the state's adult population last year, but only 14 percent of likely voters, according to a poll by the Public Policy Institute of California.
Whites, by contrast, accounted for 48 percent of California's adult population, but 72 percent of its likely voters.
Hispanic voting patterns in the Valley are probably similar to statewide trends, said Fresno County Clerk Victor Salazar. "Mere numbers don't necessarily translate into a voter advantage," he said.
People are more likely to vote when they're wealthier, older and better educated, he said. Hispanics will register to vote more often when they become more established in the community, Salazar said.
For Hispanic immigrants, distrust of government is another obstacle to greater participation in elections, said Javier Gonzalez, executive director of Strengthening Our Lives, a nonprofit organization in Los Angeles that has been conducting voter-registration drives statewide, including in Fresno County.
Many immigrants come from Mexico and Central America where political corruption is more common, he said.
Strengthening Our Lives has targeted citizenship ceremonies and other events to try to get more Hispanics registered.
Democrats are closing the margin once enjoyed by Republicans in the number registered voters in Fresno County and other parts of the Valley.
But the shift is likely due to larger political trends and not the Valley's growing Hispanic population, said Salazar. It's a mistake to consider Hispanics as a "monolithic" group that automatically identifies with one political party over another.
Last year, 61 percent of Hispanics were registered as Democrat, compared to 20 percent as Republican, according to the Public Policy Institute poll.
The Democratic Party is more likely to benefit from increased Hispanic participation than the Republican Party, Arambula said.
Hispanics emphasize the importance of family, as does the Democratic Party, with its focus on jobs, education and health care, he said.
Jose Flores, a Republican Clovis City Council member, agreed that Democrats will likely see the most short-term gains from greater Hispanic participation.