California's electorate is going through a huge transformation. Some people are focusing on the electoral system changes that will be installed in 2012, principally the new open primary and independent redistricting processes.
But the most significant change may be the fastest growing set of voters who participate in that system - Latinos.
Two facts make the Latino vote a powerful voice which many still do not understand. First, their numbers. California Latinos comprised 22 percent of the vote and 38 percent of the population in the Nov. 2 election.
Compare these numbers with 1978, when Latinos accounted for only 8 percent of the vote and 19 percent of the population. Slowly but surely, the percentage of the Latino vote is catching up with their percent of the population.
Second, their partisan disposition. According to two exit polls from the last election, somewhere between 64 and 80 percent of Latinos voted for Democrat Jerry Brown over Republican Meg Whitman. Of all the ethnic groups in California, only African-Americans were more loyal to the Democrats, but their numbers pale to the number of Latinos in the state.
This information is critical for both the Republican and Democratic parties. The more that Republicans are unable to attract growing numbers of Latinos, the more that they will have to rely upon shrinking numbers of non-Hispanic White voters, who were 65 percent of the turnout in 2010 compared with 70 percent six years ago. On the other hand, Democrats can not afford to take the Latino vote for granted, lest they bolt to Republicans over policy differences.
Just ask Gray Davis who won sizable Latino majorities in 1998 and 2002. Yet, after Davis repeatedly refused to sign bills allowing illegal immigrants to apply for driver's licenses, Latinos broke nearly fifty-fifty on the recall. Policies matter.
Over the next few months, the state's leaders will make important decisions on the deficit and budget. All kinds of groups--business, seniors, labor, environmentalists, to name a few--will weigh in on issues ranging from taxation to public education and a panoply of social welfare programs. But few groups will carry the voting clout of the Latino bloc.
That's a new reality in California that public officials dare not ignore.