Why NC Latino midterm voter turnout dropped, reversing trend

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Fiorela Villegas, director of advocacy and civic engagement at the Association of Mexicans in North Carolina, Inc, hands people voter information during a registration event

Fiorela Villegas

North Carolina advocacy groups registered thousands of Latino voters in 2022 in a push to turn out the state’s fastest growing group of residents. They made calls. They used concerts, cultural events and Instagram posts to appeal to hard-to-reach young voters.

Yet Latino registration and turnout rates, after increasing in the past two midterm elections, reversed that trend and declined.

While almost 10% of the state’s population identifies as Latino, just 1.8% of voters statewide were registered as Hispanic/Latino. This number is likely low, as it is not mandatory to provide ethnicity in registration forms.

Of Latinos eligible to register and vote – that is, those over 18 who are citizens – only 36% registered to vote and of those, only 25% cast a ballot.

The declines this year are due to a variety of factors including a lack of outreach, information and representation, according to activists and experts.

REASONS FOR LOW TURNOUT

There haven’t been concerted, sustained efforts over the years to reach the Latino community, said Frederick Velez, national director of civic engagement at Hispanic Federation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization. That leads to a lack of understanding of the importance of voting and civic participation, he said.

Velez sees a lack of continuous funding that it would take for organizations to continue outreach throughout the year and not just weeks before an election.

“(In our outreach) we kept hearing over and over and over again, ‘you’re the first person to come here, we don’t have political groups coming here, we don’t have people speaking Spanish coming to our doors,’” Velez said.

The Hispanic Federation, from March through October, ran a voter registration campaign across North Carolina and registered about 1,100 new voters, largely Latinos, Velez said. Then from October to Election Day, they reached out to thousands of people via telephone and in person to talk about the importance of voting.

Nikki Marín Baena, co-director at Siembra NC, a Latino-focused, Democratic-leaning, Greensboro-based nonprofit, said Latino outreach was likely lower in part due to a general lack of national attention and funding in North Carolina.

Siembra NC registered over 1,000 voters, the majority Latinos, through their campaign in Guilford, Alamance, Wake, Durham and Randolph called “Sin Miedo al Éxito,” which roughly translates to “Without Fear of Success.”

They chose these counties, Marín Baena said, because of their large young Latino population or because they are 287(g) counties, in which local law enforcement collaborates with the federal government to enforce federal immigration laws. Siembra NC wants to prevent further expansion of the 287(g) program and attempts by the state legislature to pass immigration law enforcement bills, she said.

A lack of information and the political climate may have also played a role in lower turnout.

“We noticed a mixture of lack of information and being fed up with politics,” explained Emilia Ismael, civic and community participation manager with El Centro Hispano, a Durham-based nonprofit that advocates for the Latino immigrant community and registered voters during the midterm election. (El Centro Hispano is the fiscal sponsor of Enlace Latino, which is editorially independent.)

“Many on the street told us that they are exhausted from all the polarization that exists in the political environment,” Ismael said. Some members of the Latino community felt alienated from these partisan discussions, she said.

“When they feel a little lost, the answer, naturally, is ‘if I don’t understand, I might as well not pay attention.’”

For Velez, another reason for low turnout and registration is a glaring lack of representation. “If you don’t see it, it’s gonna be hard for you to envision yourself there or for you to care about that process,” he said.

Ricky Hurtado, a first-term Democrat from Alamance County and the only Latino representative in the General Assembly, lost his reelection bid, meaning that next year there will be no Latino members of the legislature.

Across the state with over 2,000 races on the ballot, 27 Hispanic candidates ran in the midterm election with just a handful winning, as previously reported by The News & Observer. .

“I think that the current leaders, some have approached the Hispanic community, but we do not want a bread-crumbs approach,” said Julian Abreu, the founder and president of the Asociación Dominicana de Carolina del Norte (North Carolina Dominican Association).

“We are quite a large community,” Abreu said in Spanish. “We are a voting and economic community that has weight and exercises that power, and who is important here in the state. We deserve not only an approach but leadership.”

Abreu’s organization has a dozen or so volunteers who help the Dominican community: This year they registered over 200 people, the majority Dominican.

The age range with the highest percentage of Latinos who are citizens is made up of those under 18, meaning they cannot vote.

Of Latinos over 18, regardless of immigration status, over a quarter are found in Mecklenburg and Wake counties, with Forsyth, Guilford and Durham counties trailing behind. Still, Latinos are relatively spread out across the state. Nor are they a homogeneous bloc, with Latinos coming from a slew of countries, origins and backgrounds.

It is hard to know the exact number of Latinos in the state who are not citizens, but the Migration Policy Institute estimates there are about 250,000 Latinos in North Carolina who are in the country without legal permission. Others are in the country legally but cannot vote because they are not citizens.

Diego Piñeros, an immigrant from Colombia who works in a Colombian bakery off of Capital Boulevard, said he moved to the United States over a decade ago with his children because of political turmoil and insecurity in his country. He said he was politically active, via voting and engaging with the community, in his homeland but as he could not vote here in the United States, he does not follow politics.

After being told about the low Latino turnout, Piñeros said. “The most curious and grave thing is that those Latinos can vote, and use their voice and exercise their right to vote, to choose, to be a part of the constitution,” he said.

YOUNG LATINOS

If Latino participation in the elections was scant in general, it was even more so among young people: Only 11,659 Latinos between the ages of 18 and 25 voted. This turnout represents just 14% of registered Latino voters in that age group.

For Néstor Gómez, the minister at Comunidad Vida Nueva (New Life Community), a religious and social organization located in southeastern North Carolina, a lack of representation, and not apathy, is the root of low youth engagement.

“The main problem that I see is that there are no leaders of Latino origin that represent our voters. Who represents the voice of Latino youth?” said Gómez, who believes that what keeps young Latinos from the polls is not a “supposed natural disinterest of youth in politics” but the lack of candidates with whom to identify.

Although turnout was higher among older Latinos, Abreu said apathy is strongest in adults, as they were born in or immigrated from countries where voting and politics did not solve the problem.

Young people, likely, are not involved because apathetic parents have not taken the time to explain the importance of voting for their future, he said. It’s the responsibility of adults and Latino community leaders to raise awareness in youth, Abreu said.

Some young Latinos did feel interested in expressing their voice at the polls. Some, like Juan Felipe Amézquita, voted thinking not only of themselves but also of their family.

“I am very aware that the result of the election has consequences that affect not only me but also my parents who are not citizens and therefore cannot vote,” said Amézquita, a 21-year-old student at UNC-Charlotte.

Being the voice of those who cannot vote was precisely one of the messages used by various organizations to appeal to young voters.

Fiorela Villegas, 21, said she became interested in U.S. politics early on but became more involved during the 2020 presidential election.

“It was like a switch. And I was like, Oh, my God, I have to be more informed of the issues that are happening, especially in our country, “ she said, “It just sparked a light in me to learn more about the issues that affect me and my family.”

Villegas is Mexican- American, a first-generation student at UNC-Chapel Hill and director of advocacy and civic engagement at the Association of Mexicans in North Carolina, Inc, a Latino-focused nonprofit organization that registered almost 200 people, the majority Latinos.

Villegas said many younger Latinos cared about abortion legislation and the threatened DACA program, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, but were reluctant to vote or be politically engaged as they often did not feel their vote mattered and were not aware of policies.

The community organization El Pueblo focused on reaching out to Hispanics between the ages of 18 and 35. They used tables at music festivals to lure the youth whose electoral participation has historically been difficult to obtain.

“We tried to summon young people through fun proposals so that they would not feel the election as a burden. That is why we invited them to register for concerts by bands that we already knew they might like,” said María González, manager of policy promotion at El Pueblo.

Other organizations, such as Comunidad Vida Nueva, emphasized social media. With youth, they communicated in English, instead of Spanish which is typically the first language of older Latinos, and they used Instagram instead of Facebook.

“We used English in all of our Instagram messages and hashtags because we know that the younger audience we find on that social network generally feels more comfortable in that language,” Gómez said.

At the age of 21, Amézquita did not feel the impulse to vote because of an Instagram hashtag or an event, but rather for two issues that particularly concerned him. He said he’s hoping Democrats will succeed in keeping abortion legal in North Carolina after the Supreme Court eliminated a constitutional right to abortion, as well as in reforming immigration laws.

“I notice that many people my age don’t feel like going out to vote,” Amézquita said “I think it’s not because they don’t care but because they don’t have enough information and so they don’t understand how the elections impact them. But I voted thinking about the millions of undocumented people in this country..”

Abortion, social issues key for some voters

Interest in reproductive rights, as well as other social issues, seem to have been decisive not only for Amézquita but also for a large number of Latina women.

The turnout of Latina women at the polls was markedly higher than that of men and many of them expressed that the overturning of Roe v. Wade encouraged them to vote.

“What the numbers show was reflected in the streets,” Ismael said. “We noticed a greater commitment on the part of women. Definitely one issue we hear is reproductive rights. That played a very important role, both for one side and for the other, it mobilized women a lot.”

For Velez, “Latino men specifically, are more focused on simple economic pocketbook issues.” Latinas, meanwhile, are motivated to vote, “when you talk about other issues like affordable housing, like education, like being able to afford child care,” Velez said.

According to Norma Martí, a 69-year-old voter from Wake County, “Latina women are more aware of the discussions about reproductive rights. We are the ones who carry the children and the ones who raise them.”

Along the same lines, Petra Hager, a Raleigh voter, said that the discussion about abortion prompted her to vote. “I think it should be a personal decision. Each individual will have their commitment to God — if they’re a believer,” he said.

At 57 years old, Hager is part of the age group that had the most Hispanic/Latino voters. There were 29,839 Latino voters between 41 and 65 years old.

Martí and Hager also said they’d vote based on issues and topics such as the economy, the expansion of Medicaid, public education and immigration policy.

PARTY PREFERENCE

When it comes to voters’ party registration, Democrats lost ground with Latino voters this year while Republicans gained. More Latinos also identified as unaffiliated with any party.

For Velez, these shifts show Latinos in North Carolina, while skewing Democratic, are not a given vote for any party.

“I think both parties are kind of understanding right now that those assumptions that we’re either or (Democrats or Republicans) need to go out the window, what we care about is people that reach out to us that talk to us about our issues,” he said.

Latino communities also vary in party preferences, with Cubans, in broad terms, opting more in favor of Republicans, while Mexicans and Puerto Ricans usually support Democrats.

According to Marín Baena, whose organization canvassed in favor of Democratic candidates, many Latinos are often scored as “swing” voters by technology that is widely used by Democratic and progressive campaigns nationwide.

This often means these Latinos are sidelined by Democrats who put their money and efforts into “high likelihood voters, frequent voters, basically the people who are already going to go vote anyway,” she said. Often, Siembra NC would find Latino voters classified as “swing” voters or unlikely to vote in this system were very engaged if outreach happened, Marin Baena said.

And while Democrats sidelined Latinos this year, Republicans have been making efforts and inroads in recent years, said Marin Baena, who highlighted that more Latino candidates ran as Republicans than Democrats.

Of the 27 Latino candidates who ran in 2022, 10 ran as Republicans, six as Democrats and the remainder were in nonpartisan races, as previously reported by The N&O.

Still, she said, while Republicans made slight gains with Latinos, this may have been due to North Carolina Republicans faring well overall.

In the midterm elections, 51.3% of Democratic voters cast a ballot, compared to 58.6% of Republicans. Turnout this election cycle was also lower statewide in comparison to 2018. White voters had a higher turnout than in 2018, while Black voters, Hispanic voters and Asian American voters turned out less, as previously reported by The N&O.

“I think that progressive organizations can’t take for granted that Latino voters will vote Democrat. And I think that the Democratic Party should not take for granted that Latino voters will vote Democrat,” Marin Baena said. “The identity of Latiné, in terms of it having a political equivalency, is up for grabs at this moment, in a state like North Carolina. And I think that that’s a cultural battle.”

Related stories from Durham Herald Sun

Luciana Perez Uribe Guinassi reports on North Carolina politics.



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