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Power And Potential: The Growing Electoral Clout Of New Citizens

by Rob Paral for The Immigration Policy Center

Executive Summary

Immigrants – and groups in which immigrants are a large percentage of the population, such as Latinos and Asian/Pacific Islanders (APIs) – are a growing portion of the U.S. electorate. In a closely contested presidential race, the growing ranks of “new citizens” – foreign-born individuals who become “naturalized” U.S. citizens – are increasingly important political players.

This report uses U.S. Census data from the 1996 and 2000 election years to describe key characteristics of immigrant, Latino, and API voters. The findings include:

New Citizens

  • In 2000, there were 10.7 million adult new citizens in the United States, 6.2 million of whom were registered to vote and 5.4 million of whom actually voted.
  • Although new citizens in general have lower rates of voter turnout than natives, new citizens who are registered to vote have higher rates of voter turnout than natives who are registered to vote.
  • In just the four-year period from 1996 to 2000, the number of adult new citizens rose by 30 percent, the number of those registered to vote increased 20 percent, and the number who voted grew by 24.7 percent.
  • New citizens accounted for more than half of the net increase in persons registered to vote between 1996 and 2000.
  • The votes of new citizens are particularly important in “battleground” states – such as Arizona, Florida, Nevada, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and Washington– where victory or defeat in an election may be decided by relatively few votes.
  • The percentage of immigrants who were naturalized citizens rose from 37.5 percent in 1996 to 39.7 percent in 2000.

Latinos and Asian/Pacific Islanders

  • In 2000, there were 13.2 million adult, U.S.-citizen Latinos, of whom 7.6 million were registered to vote and 5.9 million actually voted. There were 4.6 million adult, U.S.-citizen APIs, including 2.4 million registered to vote and 2 million who in fact voted.
  • While Latinos and APIs in general have lower rates of voter turnout than non-Latino “Whites,” the turnout rates of Latinos and APIs who are registered to vote is close to that of Whites who are registered to vote.
  • The numbers of Latinos and APIs who became U.S. citizens, registered to vote, and actually voted increased substantially between 1996 and 2000. The number of non-Latino Whites registered to vote declined by 0.5 percent during this period.
  • Latino and API voters accounted for more than a third of all new voters added to the rolls between 1996 and 2000.


The closely contested elections of 2000 and 2004, and the nearly even split among voters between Democrats and Republicans, have given new meaning to the expression “every vote counts.” Candidates for offices ranging from President to Mayor are recognizing that even the smallest new constituency or handful of undecided voters can make the difference between victory and defeat in tight races. In highly competitive electoral environments, the rapidly growing ranks of “new citizens” – foreign-born individuals who become “naturalized” U.S. citizens – are increasingly important political players.

The elections of 2004 are taking place in a nation that is changing dramatically in terms of its ethnic composition and the size of its immigrant population. Approximately 13 million immigrants came to the United States during the previous decade, a number that exceeds the previous large immigration wave at the beginning of the 1900s (although the foreign-born are a smaller portion of the U.S. population today than they were between 1860 and 1920 NOTE 1). Immigration of this magnitude changes the nature of the U.S. electorate and, presumably, its priorities and interests as well.

High levels of immigration also raise important political questions about the extent to which immigrants participate electorally when given the chance. The degree to which the United States encourages immigrants to become citizens, incorporates these new citizens into its political system, and welcomes their civic participation is an indicator of the strength and confidence of the U.S. system of government. The presence of an immigrant population that is largely removed from the electoral process could signal a decline in the health of U.S. democracy. Conversely, an immigrant population that actively participates in elections is an indication that the U.S. political system functions successfully with participants of all backgrounds and ethnicities.

The extent of electoral participation by new citizens and various ethnic groups in the United States can be measured using U.S. Census data. Shortly after every biennial set of national elections, the U.S. Census Bureau conducts a survey of the voting-age population that not only collects demographic and socioeconomic information about individuals of voting age (18 or older), but also asks key questions related to citizenship, voter registration, and actual voting. The results of these surveys from the 1996 and 2000 presidential election years form the basis of this report, which measures the participation of new citizens, and of Asians and Latinos, in the U.S. electoral process.

Growing Electoral Clout and Untapped Political Power

The electoral clout of new U.S. citizens has increased dramatically over the past decade. In 2000, there were approximately 31 million foreign-born persons in the United States, NOTE 2 and their large numbers translated into similarly large numbers of foreign-born adult citizens, registered voters, and actual voters. In just the four-year period from 1996 to 2000, the number of new citizens increased by 30 percent, while the number of those new citizens registered to vote increased by 20 percent and the number who voted increased by 24.7 percent (Figure 1). By the time of the 2000 elections, 6.2 million new citizens were registered to vote, and 5.4 million new citizens in fact voted. In comparison, the number of native-born citizens registered to vote increased by 0.7 percent and the number of native-born voters rose by 4.7 percent.

As a result of their rapidly growing numbers, new citizens represented nearly one in five (18.5 percent) of all new voters added to the roles in the 1996-2000 period. Even more striking is the fact that new citizens accounted for more than half (54.9 percent) of the net increase in persons registered to vote (Figure 2).

Although these figures are evidence of impressive gains, they also reveal enormous unrealized potential. In 2000, two-fifths of new citizens were not registered to vote, and nearly half did not in fact vote. New citizens were less likely to be registered to vote and to actually vote than the native-born: 58.1 percent of foreign-born U.S. citizens were registered to vote in 2000, compared to 70.2 percent of natives; and 50.6 percent of foreign-born U.S. citizens actually voted, compared to 60 percent of native-born U.S. citizens. However, the latent political power of new citizens is evident in the fact that, once they do register to vote, they are more likely to show up at the ballot box than native-born citizens who are registered to vote. According to the Current Population Survey, 87 percent of new citizens who were registered to vote in 2000 actually did vote, compared to 85.5 percent of native-born registered voters (Figure 3). In other words, while new citizens are less likely than the native-born to take the crucial step of registering to vote, they are more likely to actually vote once they do so. NOTE 3

There is an even larger pool of eligible and soon-to-be-eligible new citizens who represent an untapped source of electoral power. The number of new citizens among potential voters in 2000 would have been 73 percent greater if all persons eligible to become U.S. citizens had been able to successfully navigate the naturalization process in time to have voted. Roughly 7.9 million individuals are now eligible to become U.S. citizens, and an additional 2.7 million will be eligible to do so in the near future. NOTE 4

A Changing Political Landscape

The growing electoral importance of new citizens stems not only from their rising numbers in the nation as a whole, but also their increasing presence in areas of the country that have not seen large numbers of immigrants for many decades. Immigrants traditionally have been concentrated in only six states: California, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, and Texas. Although these states still account for more than 80 percent of all foreign-born persons in the United States, the greatest expansion of foreign-born populations during the 1990s occurred in 19 other states, primarily in the South and Midwest. These two regions were home to 35.7 percent of the foreign-born population in 2000, but were the destination of 45.7 percent of immigrants who came to the United States during the 1995-2000 period. Between 1990 and 2000, the foreign-born populations of North Carolina, Georgia, and Nevada grew by more than 200 percent. States such as Arkansas, Utah, Tennessee, Nebraska, Colorado, Arizona, Kentucky, South Carolina, and Minnesota all saw their foreign-born populations grow by more than 130 percent. NOTE 5 As a result, immigrants are becoming important political players in a much broader swath of the country.

In 2000, new citizens constituted close to or more than 10 percent of all voters in four of the six traditional immigrant-receiving states: California, Florida, New Jersey, and New York. New citizens comprised 13.3 percent of the electorate in California and 11.3 percent in Florida. However, the electoral power of new citizens is magnified beyond their absolute numbers in states where political contests are so close that the outcome can be determined by a relatively small number of votes.

Analysts such as Harry Pachon of the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute and Louis DeSipio of the University of California at Irvine estimate the impact of Latino voters by determining whether a race is close enough for a candidate to need their votes. For example, in a hypothetical, lopsided race where the victor carries 80 percent of the vote, a voting group may not be critical to the election. As elections get tighter, however, every group or bloc of voters becomes more important.

In a two-person election, new citizens are a “swing vote” if their votes are equal to or greater than the number of votes separating the winner and the loser. The mathematics may seem surprising, but if the candidates are separated by 10 percentage points, a group representing five percent of the electorate can decide the election. This is because every point going to one candidate is a loss of a point by the other candidate.

In races in the battleground states, elections are predicted to be so close that new-citizen voters can decide the outcome. In both Pennsylvania and Michigan, for example, recent polls showed President Bush and John Kerry to be running in a statistical dead heat. NOTE 6 In all, six battleground states may be identified where new-citizen voters can make a difference in a two-candidate race even if the difference in percentage points separating the candidates is as high as five points. These states are Arizona, Florida, Nevada, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and Washington (Figure 4).

Citizenship and Civic Integration

Naturalization, the process by which immigrants become U.S. citizens, is the first step towards broader civic participation by the foreign-born. NOTE 7 Yet, despite the growing political influence of new-citizen voters, and the importance of citizenship in facilitating the integration of immigrants into U.S. society, the federal government has devoted very few resources to encouraging naturalization. The rates at which immigrants naturalize and the ability of the immigration service to adequately process citizenship applications have varied greatly over time and have been influenced by an ad hoc mixture of positive and negative factors.

In the early 1990s, a rapid rise in the number of new citizens began, not coincidentally, at a time when immigrants in the United States were under attack. In 1994, California voters passed Proposition 187, which sought to deny virtually all social services to undocumented immigrants. Although primarily focused on undocumented immigrants, and eventually ruled unconstitutional, Proposition 187 created an atmosphere of bitterness and resentment that affected all immigrants, including legal residents. Legislation passed by Congress in 1996 specifically targeted legal immigrants in the areas of public benefits and due process. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act made more than 40 percent of its spending cuts in welfare programs by limiting the eligibility of legal immigrants, who represented only 5 percent of welfare recipients. The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act made legal immigrants deportable for minor offenses, even if they were committed decades earlier, stripped immigration judges of much of their discretionary power, and severely curtailed the rights of immigrants to due process. In general, the 1990s were a time in which new laws and legislative initiatives treated legal immigrants more like undocumented immigrants than as the future U.S. citizens most of them are.

Within this anti-immigrant environment, the response of the immigrant population was positive and hopeful. Faced with unwelcoming messages, immigrants did not retreat from civic incorporation, but rather they embraced U.S. citizenship in record numbers. In the first half of the 1990s, an average of 343,000 immigrants naturalized each year. In the latter half of that decade, however, naturalizations rose to an average of 767,000 per year, more than double previous levels.

Not all of the rapid increase in the number of new citizens during the 1990s can be attributed to the rise of anti-immigrant attitudes. Ironically, the federal government demonstrated the power of investing in naturalization at the same time the anti-immigrant tide of the mid-1990s was rising. In 1995-1996, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) managed the “Citizenship USA” program, which encouraged immigrants to apply for naturalization and streamlined the process of acquiring citizenship. Unfortunately, Citizenship USA was plagued by the deficiencies of an overwhelmed immigration system that had been neglected for decades, and the program became entangled in a bitter partisan battle over the federal government’s motivations for encouraging citizenship during an election year. Nevertheless, in its short life the program facilitated citizenship for more than a million immigrants.

In addition to benign neglect in the creation of programs and policies that would encourage immigrants to become citizens, the immigration system has long been plagued by delays and backlogs in the processing of citizenship applications. From 1994 to 1998, the backlog of naturalization applications rose from just over 300,000 cases to 1.8 million. After 1998, however, the naturalization backlog declined to about 817,000 in FY 2000 (Figure 5). The reduction in the backlog stemmed from both an increase in the numbers of applications processed and approved, and a decline in the number of new applications filed.

Despite the apparent decline in the backlog, there is serious concern that the agency which replaced the INS in March 2003 – U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) – is again falling behind in processing citizenship applications. Although President Bush pledged to reduce the processing time for all immigration applications to 6 months, there is little evidence that this goal can be accomplished within the confines of the current system. In fact, according to testimony by USCIS Director Eduardo Aguirre, processing times for citizenship applications in 29 of the 33 USCIS district offices were in excess of a year. NOTE 8 In some parts of the country the delays are much longer. In September of 2004, the Orlando, Florida, immigration office reported that processing times for citizenship applications were in excess of two years. These delays are likely to have kept thousands of immigrants from becoming citizens and entering the voting booth.

The U.S. government has an inherent interest in promoting and facilitating naturalization, as opposed to the current laissez-faire approach in which immigrants are left to judge the merits of U.S. citizenship without government advice or encouragement. A more activist stance towards naturalization by the government would go a long way in fostering an “American” identity among those foreign-born individuals who might otherwise remain at the margins of U.S. civic and political life.

Beyond the First Generation

Many of the demographic and political trends that characterize the foreign-born in general and new citizens in particular also characterize their children and grandchildren. As a result, the growing electoral influence of first-generation immigrants is shared by the larger “ethnic” groups to which they belong; primarily Latinos and Asian/Pacific Islanders (APIs). In 2000, there were 13.2 million adult, U.S.-citizen Latinos, of whom 7.6 million were registered to vote and 5.9 million actually voted. Among Latino voters, 24.7 percent were foreign-born and 75.3 percent native-born. There were 4.6 million adult, U.S.-citizen APIs, including 2.4 million registered to vote and 2 million who in fact voted. Among API voters, 63.1 percent were foreign-born and 36.9 percent native-born (Figure 6).


Between 1996 and 2000, the number of adult, U.S.-citizen Latinos increased by 17.4 percent, the number registered to vote rose by 14.8 percent, and the number who voted increased by 20.4 percent. The number of adult, U.S.-citizen APIs grew by 24.4 percent, those registered to vote by 12.5 percent, and those who voted by 17.5 percent. By way of comparison, the number of non-Latino “Whites” registered to vote declined by 0.5 percent and the number who voted increased by 3.3 percent. Latinos and APIs together represented 65.8 percent of the total increase in individuals registered to vote (with Latinos accounting for 51.6 percent) and 34.6 percent of the increase in actual voters (with Latinos and APIs each accounting for 17.3 percent) (Figure 7).

API and Latino adult citizens are less likely to be registered to vote or to be voters than non-Latino White citizens. However, as with the immigrant population, the voter turnout rates of Whites, Latinos, and APIs are much closer when considering only persons registered to vote. In 2000, 83 percent of APIs who were registered to vote actually voted, while 78.6 percent of Latinos who were registered to vote did so. These rates of voter turnout are close to the turnout rate of Whites who were registered to vote (86.4 percent) (Figure 8).

A Bipartisan Opportunity

The foreign-born, and their children, represent an electoral opportunity for both the Democratic and Republican parties. The common political stereotype of Latinos, Asians, and immigrants is that they are either Democrats or Democrats-in-Waiting. In truth, the majority of Latinos and Asians identify themselves as something other than “Democrat.” A survey of Latino adults conducted from April to June 2004 found that 45 percent of Latino registered voters identified themselves as Democrats, 20 percent as Republicans, 21 percent as Independents, and 8 percent as “something else,” plus 5 percent who “don’t know.” NOTE 9 An August 2004 poll of Asian and Pacific Islander registered voters who are likely to participate in the 2004 presidential election found that 43 percent favored John Kerry, 36 percent favored President Bush, and 20 percent were undecided. Moreover, when asked which political party “regards the opinions of their national or ethnic group in a more important way,” 34 percent chose the Democratic Party, 22 percent chose the Republican Party, and 44 percent were undecided. NOTE 10


In terms of concrete measures of integration into U.S. society such as naturalization, voter registration, and voting, the foreign-born have made impressive strides over the past decade. The foreign-born are becoming citizens in increasingly large numbers. The foreign-born, as well as their children and grandchildren, are registering to vote and actually voting in greater numbers. Furthermore, once new citizens register to vote, they turn out at the voting booth at higher rates than the native-born.

However, there is still much that can be done to increase the political participation of the foreign-born, and thereby deepen their integration into U.S. society. Despite the rising numbers, the naturalization rate of the foreign-born could be much higher. The U.S. government should be far more active in encouraging individuals who are eligible to naturalize to actually do so. Moreover, the government should devote sufficient resources to reducing the backlogs and delays that force many potential new citizens to wait for more than a year to be naturalized.

There is also much that can be done to increase rates of both voter registration and voting among new citizens – and among Latinos and Asians more generally. While voting itself is a personal act, voter registration is a service often brought to citizens by registrars who go door to door or set up registration booths in public venues. As a result, political parties, candidates, and campaigns exert more influence over voter registration rates than is often recognized. As the data in this report reveal, voter registration efforts among new citizens can pay off handsomely on Election Day, particularly in tight races. Policymakers and candidates of all political stripes, and the nation as a whole, have an interest in seeing more of the foreign-born become U.S. citizens and in encouraging more new citizens to register to vote and to go to the polls.

Copyright 2004 by the American Immigration Law Foundation.


1 A. Dianne Schmidley, Profile of the Foreign-Born Population in the United States: 2000, Current Population Reports, Series P23-206. Washington, DC: U.S. Census Bureau, December 2001.

2 The 2003 Current Population Survey estimated that there were 33.5 million foreign-born persons in the United States (Luke J. Larsen, The Foreign-Born Population in the United States: 2003, Current Population Reports, P20-551. Washington, DC: U.S. Census Bureau, August 2004).

3 The data in this report is based on the Current Population Survey (CPS) conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, which provides the only data on voting that includes demographic and socioeconomic characteristics and is the basis for analyses of how subpopulations vote in the United States. The CPS undercounts the number of registered voters. However, the CPS more accurately counts the number of actual voters. This leads to a voting rate that is higher than found in administrative records on registration and voting.

For example, in Massachusetts the CPS counted 2,771,570 voters and 3,243,900 registered voters in the 2000 elections: this is a voting rate of 85.4 percent. According to the Federal Election Commission, in Massachusetts there were 4,008,796 registered voters and 2,734,006 voters in the 2000 elections: for a voting rate of 68.2 percent. While actual voting rates are lower than those provided by CPS, the relationship between native-born voting rates and foreign-born voting rates are expected to be the same (i.e. - the turnout of registered voters nationally and in most of the large immigrant states is slightly higher for the foreign born than the native-born).

4 Michael Fix, Jeffrey S. Passel & Kenneth Sucher, “Trends in Naturalization” ( Immigrant Families and Workers Brief No. 3). Washington, DC: Urban Institute, Immigration Studies Program, September 2003.

5 The states experiencing the largest percentage increases in their foreign-born populations between 1990 and 2000 were: North Carolina (273.7 percent), Georgia (233.4 percent), Nevada (202 percent), Arkansas (196.3 percent), Utah (170.8 percent), Tennessee (169 percent), Nebraska (164.7 percent), Colorado (159.7 percent), Arizona (135.9 percent), Kentucky (135.3 percent), South Carolina (132.1 percent), Minnesota (130.4 percent), Idaho (121.7 percent), Kansas (114.4 percent), Iowa (110.3 percent), Oregon (108 percent), Alabama (101.6 percent), Delaware (101.6 percent), and Indiana (101.2 percent).

6; Pennsylvania poll of October 2, 2004 and Michigan poll of September 30, 2004.

7 In general, immigrants are eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship after having been legal permanent residents of the United States for five years (less time is required for those serving in the military and for the spouses of U.S. citizens). In addition to the residence requirements, applicants for naturalization must also prove good moral character, demonstrate the ability to read and write English, and show knowledge of U.S. history and civics.

8 Slide presentation accompanying the Statement of Eduardo Aguirre, Jr., Director, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, “Backlog Reduction Plan for Immigration Applications,” Before the Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security and Claims, House Committee on the Judiciary, June 17, 2004.

9 Pew Hispanic Center & Kaiser Family Foundation, The 2004 National Survey of Latinos: Politics and Civic Participation, July 2004.

10 New California Media (with Bendixen & Associates and The Tarrance Group), National Survey of Asian and Pacific Islander Likely Voters in the United States, September 14, 2004.

Copyright: The material above was originally produced by the Immigration Policy Center of the American Immigration Law Foundation. Reproduced with Permission.

About The Author

Rob Paral is affiliated with the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law in Chicago and is an adjunct faculty member in the Sociology Department of DePaul University. The author wishes to acknowledge the contributions by Benjamin Johnson, Walter Ewing, and Michael Norkewicz for this article. The material above was originally produced by the Immigration Policy Center of the American Immigration Law Foundation.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.

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