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Originally published October 2, 2012 at 9:17 PM | Page modified October 2, 2012 at 9:17 PM

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Latinos gain stature as voting bloc, but voter turnout low

While the number of Latinos eligible to vote is increasing, a new report shows that historically they don't register to do so at the same rate as other groups.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The nation's largest minority group, Latinos are a key voting bloc this election, with both presidential candidates seriously courting their votes.

But a new report by the Pew Hispanic Center that uses census data found that although the number of eligible Latino voters is increasing, voter turnout for Hispanics has been historically lower than for any other group in the country.

Nationwide, a record 24 million Latinos are eligible to vote this year — meaning they are citizens and at least 18. But if history is any guide, only half of them are likely to be registered to vote by Election Day.

Four years ago, 50 percent of the nation's Latinos who were eligible actually voted in that presidential election, compared to 65 percent of African Americans and 66 percent of whites, according to the Pew report.

Pew doesn't have the same racial and ethnic breakouts at the state-level, and Washington doesn't track voters by race and ethnicity.

The Pew report shows that some 271,000 Latinos in Washington state are eligible to vote in November — about one-third of the state's overall Latino population.

The closest available measure for how many are registered to vote this year comes from the Secretary of State's Office, which uses a list of Spanish surnames provided by the federal government. That less scientific method found that nearly 145,000 people with such last names were registered to vote in the state as of Aug. 31.

Across Washington state, several groups are trying to address the apparent voting disparity.

David Ayala-Zamora, organizing director of OneAmerica pointed to elections where Latinos made the difference, including the 2010 re-election of U.S. Sen. Harry Reid in Nevada.

He said some Latinos, particularly those in Eastern Washington, often feel discouraged — they don't see themselves represented in local government, even in a county like Yakima where they represent 44 percent of the population.

"There's a lot of frustration ... they say, 'why vote if it won't make a difference.' "

For others it's a language barrier and still others find the system for registering complicated, Ayala-Zamora said. The Pew report's authors also point out that Hispanics tend to be younger and are less likely than other groups to be citizens.

Groups like OneAmerica are sending volunteers door to door to get not just Latinos but other naturalized citizens from Asia, Eastern European and Somalia to register to vote.

While it's important for this year's general election, Ayala-Zamora said, it's also important given that the state's first minority-majority district encompasses parts of South King County, where many immigrants have settled.

Because of the high percentage of Latinos in Yakima County, election officials there have been tracking voter turnout among that population.

In 2008, they found that while 80 percent of all registered voters cast ballots, turnout for those with Hispanic surnames was 66 percent.

While that number lags behind voter turnout overall, it was still "the highest rate ever since the county began tracking the data (in 2004)," said Cristina Labra, education coordinator for the secretary of state.

But two years later in Yakima County, Latino participation in the general election declined to 33 percent, compared to 63 percent for the population in general.

In this year's primary it was 14 percent, compared to 32 percent.

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @turnbullL.

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