During the last six years the number of Hispanic registered voters in Georgia has risen by more than 1,300 percent and Hispanics now comprise 3 percent of the state’s voters, a recent study found.
“Where we started with about 10,000 Latino registered voters back in January 2003, now we have 146,000 approximately,” said Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials and author of a report on Hispanic voter participation.
“I think voter turnout is a true indicator that there has been great success in encouraging the Latino community to vote,” he said. “In the majority of the jurisdictions across the state, Latino voter participation outpaced national rates in the general election.”
In Whitfield County, the number of registered Hispanic voters rose 331 percent between 2003 and 2009, the study showed. Whitfield now ranks sixth among Georgia’s 159 counties in the number of Hispanic registered voters in Georgia, with 3,015. The highest concentration of self-identified Hispanic registered voters is in Gwinnett County, with 15,593, according to the report.
But the growth of the Hispanic electorate will be gradual, said Dr. David Boyle, dean of the School of Social work at Dalton State College. He is a co-author of “Voices of the Nueva Frontera,” a book about Hispanic immigration to the Dalton area.
“Many of the community-based groups are working very hard with citizenship education, to encourage people to follow through and get their citizenship so they can vote, but it’s very slow,” he said. “There’s not going to be any huge leap or change, I don’t think any type of balance in terms of the electoral mix.”
America Gruner, founder of the Coalition of Latino Leaders in Dalton, said the study’s findings are a result of a long process.
“In 2006 CLILA found that, despite the hostile rhetoric (anti-immigration sentiment in some campaigns), many Latinos in the area were apathetic or felt discouraged because in their countries of origin the political decisions are not made democratically or corruption reigns,” she said.
The coalition started a voter education campaign alongside its registration efforts, she said.
Whitfield County Registrar Kay Staten said she has noticed more Hispanics registering to vote, but nothing too dramatic.
“We have a pretty large Hispanic community in Dalton, and the children who are growing up are getting closer to voting age, so it will probably rise some as they get older,” she said.
About 40 percent of the population in Dalton is Hispanic, according to Census 2000 figures.
Mr. Gonzalez said that despite their overall small numbers, Hispanic voters can make a difference in close elections. He said it’s important for candidates to start courting that vote.
“I think that particularly for the governor’s race in Georgia, it looks like it’s going to be a competitive race, both in the primary as well in the general election,” he said.
“It would make prudent sense for candidates to look at the Latino electorate as a viable force to be considered and courted, not as a campaign tactic to be used to bash immigrants,” he said.
BY THE NUMBERS
Self-identified Hispanic registered voters in Whitfield County:
* 699 — January, 2003
* 1,317 — December, 2004
* 1,907 — November, 2007
* 2,603 — October, 2008
* 3,015 — June, 2009
*331 percent — growth rate from January, 2003 to June, 2009
Source: Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials
In a ceremony during the Fourth of July celebration in Dalton, Ga., 31 new citizens were recognized by Mayor David Pennington, Whitfield County Commission Chairman Mike Babb and other community leaders.