In-Depth: Surge Of Harris Latino Vote In Primaries Uncertain, Even In The Midst Of Tougher Immigration Policies

Some experts think the national political debate could motivate that demographic, while others think the historical low participation will remain

As Texas primaries go underway, experts are divided on whether the Harris County Latino vote will increase this time.


Early voting data for the primary election is getting a high turnout in Texas –especially for the Democratic Party— but experts aren’t sure that will translate into a surge of the Latino electorate in Harris County, even after a toughening of immigration enforcement operations and with hundreds of thousands of young undocumented immigrants finding themselves in a legal limbo.

Some political analysts say Latino voters tend to support the Democratic Party for the most part and the high turnout could mean a surge. 

As of  February 25th, Democrats’ combined in-person votes and mail ballots received totaled 34,555, an increase of nearly 200 percent over the 2014 congressional midterm election, according to Harris County figures.  By comparison, Republican participation was up just 11 percent compared to the last mid-term primary.

Houston-based political consultant Marc Campos , who usually works with the Democratic Party, thinks “there’s a potential for enthusiasm among Democrats” and that this may also mean a surge of Latino voters in the 2018 Texas primary election in counties like Harris because, according to him, the Latino electorate tends to vote for the Democrats.

Campos considers the Trump administration’s policies on immigration a potential driver for an increase in the Latino vote in these mid-term primaries: “You gotta think that, you know, that’s motivating people to vote.” 

Topics that are part of the national political debate –such as the reactions to the mass shooting at the Stoneman Douglas High School that demand more strict gun control laws in the United States and also the uncertainty surrounding what will happen to the Obama-era program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which is currently being debated in court— can also motivate a higher number of Harris County Latino voters to participate in the primary election, Campos believes.

“If I was to bet on which younger group ethnically was gonna turn out in bigger numbers, I would say Latinos right now,” Campos stresses.

Finally, certain primary races –particularly the replacement of veteran U.S. Congressman Gene Green (D-TX Congressional District 29)– can motivate the Latino Democratic voters, the consultant highlights. Out of the seven Democratic contenders for the seat, six are Hispanic, including State Senator Sylvia Garcia. 

The office of Harris County’s Clerk Stan Stanart, also the county’s Chief Election Officer, notes that there are 12 percent more registered voters with a Spanish surname for these primaries than for the 2016 primaries, when presidential candidates for both parties were voted. A total of 491,912 voters with a Spanish last name were registered to vote in the March 6th primaries, compared to 430,203 in 2016.

Stanart’s office doesn’t break down voter data by race or ethnicity, but having a Spanish surname –a piece of information the county does compile—can indicate the voter is Latino.

However, when it comes to putting the vote in the ballot, political experts agree that there is typically more participation in primary elections held in years when there is a presidential election, 2016, than in mid-term election years, like this year. To that point,  a total of 13,721 Harris County Spanish-surnamed voters participated in the 2014 primary election, according to data provided by Stanart’s office. And that was a decrease from the 19,607 who voted in 2010.

However, other consultants note the priority of Latinos in primary elections is not so much party identification but, rather, how much they identify with the candidates or how much they like them.


Not so enticing

Jessica Colón, a Houston-based Republican strategist, disagrees with Campos’ assumption that Latino voters in Harris County are for the most part supporters of the Democratic Party.

Colón says in general it’s  “difficult to predict” whether there will be a surge of Latino voters in this primary and notes that “it appears historically that voters with Hispanic surnames tend to look at candidates to whom they most identify, as opposed to voting strictly on party identification.”

Rice University  political science professor Robert Stein thinks that with the exception of Green’s replacement there is not much about these primaries that would particularly appeal to Latino voters in Harris County.

Stein doesn’t anticipate issues tied to national politics –such as the uncertainty about the future of young undocumented immigrants and the program that currently protects them from deportation, DACA— will be a relevant factor at the county level.

“I don’t see any evidence that the Democratic Party, and that’s the party that would mobilize around that, has –how can I put this?— embraced the protection of DACA beneficiaries,” notes Stein who, nonetheless, adds it could become a motivating component when the mid-term election takes place in November.

“I think the group that might be mobilized might be women…  because of the current outrage over a variety of sexual harassment and gender-based issues, particularly Mr. (president Donald ) Trump has been center of that,” Stein says.

University of Houston political science professor Jerónimo Cortina, agrees.

With the exception of the race for Congressional District 29 and maybe the one for Precinct 2 of Harris County’s Commissioners Court, where Adrián García –former Harris County Sheriff— is one of the contenders, Cortina sees no special factors for Harris’ Latinos to be particularly motivated over these primaries.


And even if those races motivated more Latino voters to participate in the primary election, that could result in an increase in the geographical areas impacted by the races, but not in the entire county, Cortina says: “There are numerous factors that could potentially increase turnout. However, there is no single factor that could increase turnout overall in the county.”


Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund  warns that even in the current adverse political circumstances for immigrants, whether or not there will be a surge of Harris County Latino voters in this election is a question with no clear answer.

But, Vargas notes, there has been a nationwide increase in applications for U.S. citizenship lately, based on his organization’s recent experience in dealing with applicants, although he doesn’t provide figures.  That increase, Vargas says, is directly related  to permanent residents wanting to naturalize to be able to vote.

“We know that individuals are seeking to apply to become U.S. citizens”, he says, as  “a response to the national conversation about the role of immigrants and the future of immigration policy.”


But when it comes to Houston, the most recent data by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) shows that its local office received practically the same amount of citizenship applications between January and September of last year, a total of 24,946,  than between January and September of 2016, a total of 25,060.