OPINION

Kansas’ Hispanic population is growing. Here is why they still lack political power.

Patrick R. Miller
Special to Gannett Kansas

The recent release of additional 2020 census numbers is a treasure trove of fascinating data about Kansas. While redistricting and the urbanization of Kansas have dominated the political chatter about these data, they also tell an interesting story about our state’s growing Hispanic population.

Let’s clarify some concepts.

The census measures “Hispanic” as an ethnicity that crosses racial lines. However, studies on racial identity show that most Americans, including most self-identified Hispanics, perceive Hispanic as a race itself.

Further, Gallup and Pew surveys find that about 60% of self-identified Hispanics in America prefer the term “Hispanic” when asked to label themselves, about a third prefer “Latino,” and less than 5% prefer “Latinx.”

That said, let’s talk numbers.

The country and Kansas grew more racially diverse since 2010 as the white percentage of the population declined. The Hispanic percentage of the American population grew from 16% in 2010 to 19% in 2020. In Kansas, Hispanics grew from 10.5% of the state to 13%.

Put differently, Kansas’ Hispanic population grew roughly 25% since 2010. In contrast, Kansas’s population overall grew just 3% last decade. And Hispanics grew as a share of the population in all but 9 Kansas counties, even as 80 of 105 counties lost population. So, Hispanics are disproportionately driving Kansas’s modest population growth.

Kansas Hispanics remain concentrated in southwest Kansas, where Finney, Ford, Seward and Grant counties are majority Hispanic. Elsewhere, Hispanics are more concentrated in urban communities, especially Wichita, Topeka, Emporia, Salina, Hutchison, Newton, Kansas City and Olathe.

What are the politics here, especially for Kansas Hispanics to achieve greater political power as they grow?

First, the voting weight of Kansas Hispanics doesn’t reflect their numbers. Take Ford County, for example. In the 2020 census, 58% of residents were Hispanic. However, the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey puts the county’s citizen voting age population at 63% non-Hispanic White.

Add to that comparatively lower voter registration and turnout rates among Hispanics. The result is that — for now — majority Hispanic Kansas communities have majority White electorates and often no elected Hispanic representation.

Second, most voter mobilization happens through partisan campaign activities, but neither party has strong incentives to target Hispanic Kansas voters. Hispanics skew significantly Democratic and often more liberal than whites on issues, giving Republicans little reason to engage them. Democrats likely win more votes by focusing their more limited resources on high turnout white suburbanites.

Barriers to voting aside, to effectively mobilize Hispanic voters in Kansas, that push likely has to come from community organizations, perhaps from within the Hispanic community itself, that operate outside of traditional campaigns.

Third, gerrymandering in some communities, especially for local office, limits Hispanic political representation. For example, some Kansas counties have county commission lines that divide more concentrated Hispanic neighborhoods across multiple districts, sometimes using questionably legal noncontiguous districts. This prevents Hispanic voters from being concentrated enough in any one district to elect a Hispanic candidate.

As Kansas’ Hispanic population grows, the political power that their growth merits won’t just magically appear. Starting at the local level, it will necessitate promoting engagement within that community, changing the electoral calculus of political establishments, and eliminating institutional barriers to Hispanic representation.

It won’t happen overnight, but if demographics are destiny it will happen.

Patrick R. Miller is an associate professor of political science at the University of Kansas.