California Assemblymember Jimmy Gomez easily won the U.S. House seat previously held by Xavier Becerra, now the state's attorney general, defeating Robert Lee Ahn by over 20 percentage points at final count. However, the election of the rising Latino star underscores some valuable lessons in Latino voting behavior and Latino political power.
First, Latinos seem to prefer to cast their ballots in person rather than by mail. When the vote-by-mail (VBM) ballot counts were released, the race was a dead heat, with almost 19 thousand ballots received and both Gomez and Ahn splitting those votes almost evenly at about 9 thousand each. This means that by the time the in-person votes were counted, Gomez had run away with the election, getting roughly 70 percent of the votes from those who came to the ballot box.
The tendency for Latinos to prefer in-person voting has been noted before. The UC Davis Center for Regional Change’s California Civic Engagement Project (CCEP) reported disparities in VBM preference by several important demographics, including age, party identification, and ethnicity. For instance, the CCEP issue brief points out that, “only 27.2% percent of Latino voters in Los Angeles County used VBM, while 51.6% of Asian Americans casting a ballot chose to do so with VBM ballots.”
But Hispanics' preferences for in-person voting means that barriers to voting, like voter ID laws, will disproportionately impact Latino voters. Identification is generally not required to submit a mail-in ballot. A signature under penalty of perjury, is usually the only requirement. It is also noteworthy that the CCEP issue brief also found that the youngest age group was also the least likely to vote by mail. This contributes to our understanding of why voter ID laws are overwhelmingly pushed by Republicans.
The second lesson from the Gomez victory is that, once again, voter turnout was depressingly low. Not even 11 percent of registered voters came out to vote, with the country reporting over 302 thousand registered voters, and less than 33 thousand votes submitted in total. Special elections tend to have lower voter turnout, but it underscores the importance of promoting policies that boost voter participation, such as automatic voter registration, making Election Day a holiday or extending early voting days.
Third, there is an important lesson in coalition building for young leaders such as Gomez. As an Assemblymember and now a congressman, Gomez represents a heavily Latino district. With such an overwhelming advantage as a kid raised by Mexican immigrants in Los Angeles, Gomez is going to need to reach out to other voting groups even if he does not need them for re-election in his own district.
Latino representatives have a particularly difficult time getting elected in non-Latino districts. Few Hispanic members of Congress represent districts that are not at least plurality Latino.
But this makes it difficult to recruit suitable Latino candidates for higher office at the state level and higher. This was evident when Hillary Clinton looked at the stable of suitable Latino candidates for her running mate, and was left with the former Labor Secretary, Tom Perez, and Julián Castro, the former Mayor of San Antonio who had been plucked by the Obama Administration to run the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Perez and Castro would have made fine running mates, in my opinion. But they certainly did not have the foundational voter base they would need to establish some record of electoral victories as future presidential candidates.
Gomez is seen as a rising star in politics, and he joins a slew of young Latinos rapidly rising in office across the country. But if these young politicians are to take the next step, they will need to step out of their comfort zone of being seen primarily as Latino representatives.