WASHINGTON -- The number of black and Hispanic registered voters has fallen sharply since 2008, posing a serious challenge to President Barack Obama's campaign in an election that could hinge on the participation of minority voters.
Voter rolls typically shrink in nonpresidential election years, but this is the first time in nearly four decades that the number of registered Hispanics has dropped significantly.
That figure fell 5 percent nationwide to about 11 million, according to the Census Bureau. But in some politically important swing states, the decline among Hispanics, who are considered critical in the 2012 presidential contest, is much higher: just over 28 percent in New Mexico, for example, and about 10 percent in Florida.
For both Hispanics and blacks, the large decrease is attributed to the ailing economy, which forced many Americans to move in search of work or because of other financial upheaval.
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"The only explanation out there is the massive job loss and home mortgage foreclosures which disproportionately affected minorities," said Antonio Gonzalez, president of the William C. Velasquez Institute, a nonpartisan policy group that focuses on Latinos.
"When you move, you lose your registration."
Political strategists and election experts are divided on whether registrations will rise to their previous levels. But the prospect of a tight race between Obama and Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee, has placed great importance on getting eligible Americans to register and vote. In the 2008 election, robust turnout among black and Latino voters is credited with putting Obama over the top in key swing states, such as Virginia and New Mexico.
The decline in minority registration "is obviously an area of concern," said Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg, president of NDN, a left-leaning think tank.
But, he said, the Obama campaign "will have enough money and enough focus to mitigate the problem."
The GOP is also watching the shifting voter registration numbers, tracking active Republican voters in swing states and making sure they are still registered. In some places, the number of voters registered as Republicans is catching up with Democrats.
"We have really closed the gap in key battleground states," said Republican National Committee spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski, pointing to the relative parity Republicans have reached with Democrats in Iowa and Colorado.
The president's re-election effort is focusing early this year on voter registration, which typically happens between September and November.
Last weekend, the campaign held voter registration training sessions in a dozen states.
In Florida, where the number of registered Hispanic voters has dropped by more than 140,000, the campaign trained hundreds of volunteers to sign up voters.
But those efforts, campaign officials say, have been complicated by laws approved by state legislatures since 2008, including some that place additional requirements on groups that register voters.
"It is disheartening to see voting becoming harder in states across the country," said Katie Hogan, a spokeswoman for the Obama campaign.
'Seeing the squeeze'
Legislatures in a dozen states, including Texas, passed rules last year requiring voters to present state-issued photo IDs when they arrive at the polls, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, although in four states the laws were vetoed by Democratic governors.
Florida and Ohio will cut nearly in half the number of days for early voting, and Florida lawmakers reversed rules that had made it easier for former felons to vote.
Florida also passed rules governing groups that register voters, requiring them to turn in completed voter registration forms within 48 hours or risk fines. Groups previously had 10 days to file the forms.
As a result, the League of Women Voters, the Boy Scouts and several other organizations that register voters halted efforts in Florida.
Opponents of the laws say Republican legislatures have attempted to tamp down turnout among minorities, who tend to vote for Democrats.
"We're seeing the squeeze put on voters of color. They were hit by the economy, they have to re-register to vote, and now they are hit by new registration requirements," said Judith Browne Dianis, a civil rights lawyer and co-director of the Advancement Project, which is challenging the laws in several states.
Supporters of the laws say they are aimed at preventing voter fraud.
"For decades we've dealt with fraud and irregularities, and those concerns have to be addressed as well," said Ana Navarro, a Florida Republican activist who supports the changes to the state's voting laws.
Together, the number of registered blacks and Hispanics nationwide declined by 2 million from 2008 to late 2010, when the Census Bureau collected the data through its Current Population Survey.
The figure among blacks is down 7 percent, to just over 16 million. Among whites, it dropped 6 percent to 104 million.
The drop is attributed not only to Americans moving from their homes but also the assumption -- by 1 in 4 voters -- that their registration is automatically updated when they move, according to a report by the Pew Center on the States.
Nationally, about 1 in 8 Americans moved between 2008 and 2010, with higher numbers among members of the armed services, young people and those living in communities affected by the economic downturn.
Nevada, a swing state with one of the highest foreclosure rates in the nation, is a prime example. In Clark County -- which is 22 percent Hispanic -- election officials found that more than 20 percent of voters no longer lived at the addresses on file, said David Becker, director of Election Initiatives for the Pew Center. Such voters are purged from the voter rolls.
Among Latinos, the decline has altered a trend line of steady growth. Given that 12 million Latinos were registered to vote in 2008, some analysts had said the number would grow to 13 million in 2010 and 14 million this election cycle. Instead, it fell in 2010 to 11 million.
"Everyone is saying the Latino vote is rocketing to the moon," Gonzalez said. "It has been growing, but it stopped."