The Changing Face of the Northwest Electorate

An aging population means a more diverse electorate.
By Clark Williams-Derry on November 27, 2012 at 9:15 am

Yesterday’s Seattle Times brought news of a trend that will shape the Northwest electorate for decades: the steady increase in the share of minority voters. Compared with some parts of the nation, the Northwest isn’t particularly diverse. Still, the latest census figures show that nearly one-fourth of Washington residents over the age of 18 now self-identify as Hispanic or non-white. In Oregon, 18 percent identify as Hispanic or non-white; in Idaho, it’s about 13 percent.

But every respectable demographic projection shows that the Northwest’s voting age population will continue to diversify over the coming years. And that’s true regardless of what happens with future immigration trends. That’s right: you don’t have to assume that there will be an influx of non-white voters to be confident that the region’s electorate will diversify. You just need to look at what will happen as today’s Northwest residents continue to age.

Throughout the Northwest states, youth is strongly correlated with diversity: preschoolers are roughly five times as likely to be non-white as octogenarians, with a fairly steady gradient in between. Over the coming decades—as older folks pass on and today’s teens hit voting years—the aging of the population will steadily ratchet the Northwest electorate towards greater and greater diversity.

The process will happen fastest in Washington, which is already the most diverse of the three Northwest states. Factoring in both death and aging in Washington, I expect that the gap between the “white alone” and minority voting-age populations will narrow by about 1.2 percentage points every 2-year election cycle, for at least the next few cycles. (For death rates by age, I use data from the Washington State Department of Health. For race and ethnicity by age, I use data from the American Community Survey for 2009-2011.)

It remains to be seen whether the electorate itself will follow the same trends. In the 2008 election, most minority groups had lower voter-registration rates, and lower voter turnout, than non-Hispanic whites. If this minority voter under-representation continues, then the demographic shifts among voters will be more muted than the shifts among the population as a whole. On the other hand, even modest increases in political participation among the Northwest’s non-white population could diversify the electorate far more rapidly than demographic trends alone would suggest.

Either way, the reality is clear: Northwest voters are growing more diverse. The question now is, how will our politics respond to the growing clout of the region’s non-white voters?

Originally published at Sightline Daily

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