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Esther J. Cepeda: Latinos have a date with the ballot box

First Published      Last Updated Sep 08 2016 05:10 pm

CHICAGO • Depending on which political prognosticators you listen to, Latinos won't show up at the polls this November either because the presidential candidates aren't palatable or because Latinos just don't vote.

Both of these scenarios are plausible and neither is good for democracy in a country where Hispanics represent a steadily increasing percentage of the population.

It's no secret that a lot of Hispanics who are eligible to vote have been turned off by the Republican candidate because of his strident anti-Latino rhetoric and hardline views on curbing illegal immigration. But that doesn't guarantee that those who are eligible will automatically cast a vote for Hillary Clinton when the time comes.




In early August, Chuck Rocha, the founder of Solidarity Strategies, a political consulting firm that focuses on Latinos, re-iterated the issue of underfunded Latino voter-mobilization efforts: "We work with a majority of the Latino nonprofits in the country, and everyone's budgets and fundraising for registration efforts are significantly less than four years ago. We just got money to register 20,000 Latinos in North Carolina. We got the contract yesterday. We needed it three months ago."

Part of the problem is surely that Democratic-leaning organizations are assuming that Latino voters are so scared of the pain that a Donald Trump presidency might bring on them and their families that they will be highly motivated to vote in November.

That's not necessarily the case.

Untold numbers of commentators, journalists, data scientists and advocacy groups have, for years, been talking about waking the "sleeping giant" and unleashing the power of Hispanics in electoral politics. Anyone remember the March 2012 Time magazine cover proclaiming "Yo Decido" — "I decide"?

In fact, Latinos did not turn out in as high a number as expected for the last election — their participation dropped from 49.9 percent in 2008 to 48 percent in 2012, according to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO).

NALEO recently reported that 27.3 million Hispanics will be eligible to vote this November but projected that only 13.1 million — or less than half — will actually cast ballots.

Leaders from advocacy organizations tell me all the time that this is due to underinvestment in long-term get-out-the-vote efforts and not because of some inborn apathy or the common stereotype that because some Hispanics come from Latin American countries where their ballots truly don't count, voting is not an ingrained activity.

There's certainly some bit of truth to this. But not enough to dissuade those at the Washington-based "Tell Them to Vote" campaign, which is aimed at getting Latin Americans to encourage their U.S.-citizen relatives to vote in the upcoming election.

Still, it should surprise no one that Latinos won't come out as long as they are not valued as voters, are not courted over the long haul similarly to other special interest groups and are either taken for granted or vilified.

"What happens during elections is that organizations come in at the last minute with a lot of money targeting the Latino vote," labor leader Dolores Huerta told me in an interview. "It's very hard to get the large organizations to invest in grassroots organizations [that have the most pull with geographically localized voters] because people want to see quick outcomes, and it takes time and patience to build a base."

Huerta said that Latinos have been pivotal in winning lower-ballot elections and in deciding high-profile propositions for decades. But she believes Hispanics' impact can grow if they are simply cultivated over the long term and are better informed about the process and their choices.

"A lot of our people feel intimidated because they don't know that their vote matters," Huerta said. "Then, if they finally get into the voting booth, they feel that they have to vote for everything but they don't want to make a mistake. It's important for people to know that they can vote for just the items they're comfortable with."

Latinos need to go out and vote on Tuesday, Nov. 8. Even if neither presidential candidate sounds good, there are local offices and issues that are equally important and in need of Latino ballots. And if anyone has the nerve to be disappointed in Latino voter turnout this fall, they should begin making investments for the next election starting on Wednesday, Nov. 9.

estherjcepeda@washpost.com

Twitter, @estherjcepeda

 

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