updated 9/5/2006 6:57:13 AM ET 2006-09-05T10:57:13

During the spring protests that brought hundreds of thousands to the streets, Hispanic immigrants chanted a promise and a threat to politicians: “Today We March, Tomorrow We Vote.”

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So far, however, there is no indication that such a potent political legacy is developing.

An Associated Press review of voter registration figures from Chicago, Denver, Houston, Atlanta and other major urban areas that saw large rallies shows no sign of a historic new voter boom that could sway elections.

Even in Los Angeles, where a 500,000-strong protest in March foreshadowed demonstrations across the United States, an increase in new registrations before the June primary was more trickle than torrent in a county of nearly 4 million voters.

Protest organizers — principally unions, Hispanic advocacy groups and the Roman Catholic Church — acknowledge that it has been hard to translate street activism into ballot box clout, though they insist their goal of 1 million new voters by 2008 is reachable.

It’s impossible to count exactly how many new registrants were inspired by the new movement because counties typically do not ask race or ethnicity. But while new registrations were higher this year than last — not surprising since Democrats and Republicans are struggling for control of Congress — the numbers are well below 2004 and do not indicate the watershed awakening that advocates had envisioned.

“I was anticipating a huge jump in registration — I didn’t see it,” said Jess Cervantes, a veteran California political operative whose company analyzes Hispanic voting trends. “When you have an emotional response, it takes time to evolve.”

Pivotal voting bloc
The emotional response was a reaction to federal legislation that would have overhauled current immigration policy, including the criminalization of the estimated 11 million immigrants who are here illegally.

While that legislation is effectively dead this year, immigration remains a campaign issue. And Hispanic voters remain a pivotal voting bloc, especially with their numbers projected to grow significantly in coming decades.

Hispanics have long voted in numbers far below their share of the population, in part because many are under 18 or not U.S. citizens. A study by the Pew Hispanic Center found that while Hispanics accounted for half the nation’s population growth between the 2000 and 2004 elections, they represented only one-tenth of the increase in votes cast.

A lack of political experience helps explain why the flow of new registrations has been halting. Some activists acknowledge that their groups have yet to master the nuances of voter registration drives — a typically face-to-face task more complex than mobilizing a march. Others complain that political parties with the most to gain haven’t financed registration efforts.

“Until the money is spent, ’Today We March, Tomorrow We Vote’ will always just be a slogan,” said Nativo Lopez, president of the California-based Mexican-American Political Association. “A million new registrations would cost about $10 million. Is anybody willing to pay that? I haven’t seen it.”

What’s more, no galvanizing leader of the immigrant-rights movement has emerged and the largest pool of potential voters — young people — tend to be the hardest to reach.

“It’s a hard sell,” said Avelino Andazola, a field organizer with the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project who rounded up only a dozen new registrations at a spring immigration rally attended by several thousand people in southern Los Angeles County.

What the numbers say
For this story, the AP reviewed new registration numbers in metropolitan areas over several years. The areas included Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Jose, Calif.; Chicago; Phoenix and Tucson, Ariz.; Dallas and Houston; Atlanta; Denver; and Jacksonville and St. Petersburg, Fla. The time frames included both January-through-July periods dating to 2004, as well as periods before statewide elections, when registration efforts are most intense.

The data provide a wide-angle look at new registrations, but do have limitations. Any significant shift in registrations overall would stand out, but voters are not specifically identified by race or ethnicity.

Gains in new registrations were highest in 2004, when political parties spent lavishly to enroll new voters ahead of the presidential election.

New voter registrations increased in virtually every city between 2005 and 2006 — but that would be expected because of congressional primaries and elections. The 2006 numbers were below the 2004 numbers in every city, often significantly.

In Harris County, Texas, home to Houston, new registrations through July tallied 55,657 — an increase of 16 percent over 2005 but well below the 71,402 from 2004.

And in rare cases, registrations declined. New registrations in San Francisco were significantly lower in the 100 days before this year’s June 6 primary than over the same period before a statewide special election in November 2005.

In Chicago and surrounding Cook County, registrations in the first seven months this year jumped about a third over 2005, but were far below the same period in 2004.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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