Why Nevada's Latino vote could make the difference in the 2012 election

Nearly half of the population growth in Nevada can be attributed to Latinos, with one on four of the state's residents being Latino.

Story highlights

  • Of Nevada's 2.7 million residents, 26% are Hispanic.
  • In 2010, Latinos were key to Harry Reid's come-from-behind victory.
  • Nevada gained a new district after census, in part due to Hispanic population growth

A tour outside the casino zone in Las Vegas reveals the Latino influence in Nevada.

The billboards and shops advertising in Spanish anything from Mexican, Venezuelan or Salvadoran food to a relaxing massage are just as prevalent as the iconic neon signs in Las Vegas.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, the population in Nevada grew 35% in the last decade, and of the state's 2.7 million residents, 26% are Hispanic. The growth in the number of Hispanic residents has quickly translated into political power.

Kenneth Fernandez, a political science professor at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, is among many who credit the Latino vote for saving Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's job in the 2010 election.

"Hispanic turnout in the mid-term election was higher than in the 2008 election," he said.

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State Sen. Moises "Mo" Denis says that for state politicians seeking office, courting Latinos is a must.

"You won't win (on) the Latino vote alone, but you can't win without it," he said.

That newfound influence has sparked a controversy about the best way to address Latino representation at the state and national level.

Nevada gained a new congressional district, thanks to the population increase fueled by Hispanics.

The Democratic-controlled Nevada Legislature has twice approved new congressional maps spreading the Latino community into three of the four districts.

"The challenge is how to draw the lines in a way that is fair, that ensures equal representation and to ensure that all communities can elect the representatives of their choice," said state Senate Majority leader Steven Horsford.

But Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval has twice vetoed the maps approved by the legislation. He argued that the maps, without a Latino majority district, violate the spirit of the Voting Rights Act, which bans racial discrimination in voting practices.

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Sandoval's staff didn't return repeated CNN requests for comment, but when he vetoed a proposed redistricting map in May, he said the maps were unacceptable.

"With Hispanics accounting for 46% of the total population growth in our state over the last 10 years, this transparent effort to avoid creating even one additional district where this community would be likely to elect its candidate of choice is simply not acceptable."

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The sentiment is echoed by other Republicans.

"The Latino community has been very good to the Democratic Party for so many years you would think they would be the first to promote a district to represent the Latinos and to elect candidates of their choice," said Alex Garza, a Republican activist who introduced a map carving a district with a Hispanic majority that he says would increase the chances of getting a Latino elected to Congress.

"For the longest time, we have been yelling at the top of our lungs that we wanted fair representation, that we wanted access to opportunity, that we wanted a seat at the table," Garza said.

Democrats accuse Republicans of trying to "pack" Hispanics into one district, thereby negating their influence elsewhere in the state.

Denis says the time for a single Latino district has passed, arguing Hispanics live in more than one area and that should be reflected on the maps.

"If we have influence in three districts, then the candidates will have to come to the community and pay attention to our needs rather than being dismissed and conceding the single Latino district," he explained.

Garza disagrees. He says the moment is now for Hispanics not only to be part of the political conversation but to be the ones setting the agenda.

"Our population is going to continue to grow over the next years so we are not going to be held to one single seat," he said.

The maps are now in the hands of a three-member panel known as the "masters," who were appointed by a federal judge. The panel must decide the legality of the districts based on the Voting Rights Act and ensure that all groups are fairly represented.

Activists and other groups have spoken out both against and in favor of a Hispanic majority district, but political consultant Marco Rauda says it is hard to get a good read on where the Latino community stands on the issue.

"Reapportioning is a new process for the Latino community, so we are now trying to educate them on the issue," he said.

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Fernandez says both parties are using the Hispanic voters as an excuse to gain from the redistricting process.

"Their No.1 goal is to protect incumbents," he said. "Then they'll move to gain strategic advantage on the districts and then they'll consider Hispanic representation."

Fernandez also said that in Nevada, Latinos have been able to get elected in non-Latino majority districts. He points to the election of Sandoval, who won even though a majority of Hispanics did not vote for him.

Denis says he himself is proof that a Hispanic-majority district is not a guarantee a Latino will be elected. "Ten years ago I lost in a newly created Hispanic district for the state assembly," he said.

Regardless of the outcome, Fernandez thinks the Nevada Latinos are already the winners of the debate.

"Just the attention they are getting is demonstrating that this sleeping giant is an important player that is only going to motivate and activate Latino voters," he said.