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Voto Latino volunteers hope Hispanics will play election roles

Just 48 percent of Az Hispanics are registered voters

Miguel Pacheco sat at a table outside the César E. Chavez building on the University of Arizona campus. Thousands of Arizona students eligible for voting would be streaming through the campus this semester. The year signaled the ramping up of local, state and federal election campaigns. According to Pacheco, it was a time of great opportunity for the new campus chapter of Voto Latino he was volunteering for.

“For a long time, voter participation has been very low for Hispanics in Arizona relative to other voting groups,” said Pacheco, a biochemistry junior at the UA, as he volunteered last month. “The amount of Hispanics in office also doesn’t reflect the state or national population of Hispanic citizens, which can be ameliorated by increasing voter turnout.”

Pacheco, like many other student volunteers at the Voto Latino chapter, sees the organization as an opportunity to reach out to residents of the state he thinks are disengaged from the electoral process. According to a 2014 study by the Pew Research Center just 48 percent of Hispanics in Arizona are registered to vote, compared to 81 percent of the non-Hispanic white population.

But groups have tried to close that gap for generations, and this year's efforts have been hampered by having few volunteers to canvass neighborhoods. The idealistic ambitions of today's student volunteers may be over-matched by their entrenched challenges.

Belen Grijalva, a chemistry and Spanish literature sophomore at the UA, believes that a mixture of fear and indifference works to keep many Hispanic citizens from participating in the electoral process.

“Many are just afraid, they think it’s better to not get involved or that there will be negative consequences if they express themselves,” she said. “But it’s really important to give them a voice like every other group in our community.”

In Pima County, Hispanics and Latinos make up 34.6 percent of the overall population, according to 2010 U.S. Census data. A professed goal of Voto Latino is to transform the electoral landscape by reaching out to these large yet untouched segments of the Hispanic community.

Enrico Trevisani, president of the Voto Latino UA chapter. sees participation in the electoral system as his civic duty as both a U.S. citizen and a child of immigrant parents from Brazil.

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“This country’s given me everything,” said Trevisani, who is a political science junior. “It makes me feel like I have a responsibility to get involved and make sure other people in the immigrant or Hispanic community stay politically active.”

Every weekday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., the booth outside the Chavez building has volunteers prepared to register voters and enlist volunteers.

“I’ve seen about 10 other people while I’ve been out here,” said Trevisani, referring to the other volunteers also working through Voto Latino’s campus outreach program.

In addition to campus voter registration drives, the chapter is seeking to employ community outreach plans throughout areas of Tucson that are heavily Hispanic but historically haven’t participated in local or federal elections.

“We plan on knocking on a lot of doors in South Tucson to get people registered.” said Cesar Mendoza, the vice president of the chapter who’s in charge of community outreach. “These are areas that have never been touched before.”

Partisan issues for a nonpartisan organization

Voto Latino was launched in the summer of 2004 during a contentious presidential election year. Its stated purpose was to increase national Hispanic voter turnout through community and technological outreach. While its goals are presented as nonpartisan, and it is a tax-exempt 501c3 nonprofit organization that doesn’t support candidates or parties, the issues it prioritizes fall on the left side of the political aisle. These include support for immigration reform, expanded access to contraception and sex education and reform of police practices criticized as discriminatory or harmful to minority groups.

“We focus a lot on environmental issues, immigration, education, those are the big ones,” said Adrianna Espinoza, Voto Latino’s field fellow for Arizona. “We don’t endorse candidates, but we do take stances on certain issues that effect minorities disproportionately.”

In order to achieve any tangible goals, the vast majority of nonpartisan advocacy organizations throughout the U.S. will fall on either side of the political spectrum. This is especially true during a time when politics are marred by historic polarization between voters and parties.

“We’re a nonpartisan organization,” said Mendoza. “But we do line up with a lot of progressive issues, including support comprehensive immigration reform.”

In an election year where issues like immigration, border enforcement and concerns over voter fraud have become rallying points for public figures like Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump or Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, Voto Latino’s efforts to turn out the vote for Hispanics are likely to encounter some barriers along partisan lines.

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“Everyone has equal access to democracy,” said Espinoza. “I don’t think that any of the work Voto Latino is doing does anything that can be misconstrued as voter fraud. All we’re doing is registering people.”

One recent piece of legislation that many Democrats have denounced as voter suppression (and many Republicans have supported as maintaining the integrity of elections) was an Arizona House bill that made collection of early ballots a felony. Signed in March of this year, the law can impose up to $150,000 in fines and a one-year prison sentence on what was a common practice by many political advocacy groups — including many GOP groups. While it includes some exceptions for family members and caregivers, it was passed along party lines in the Legislature. Gov. Doug Ducey, upon signing the bill, said that the unregulated process of ballot collection “provided too much opportunity for fraud and tampering with an election.”

Halting a process like ballot collection, however, can hamper voters that rely on early ballots for voting, according to some civic advocates. But since Maricopa County Recorder Helen Purcell said that the ban wouldn't be enforced by poll workers this election season, the impacts of this legislation will be delayed until after 2016.

“The integrity of elections is very important to our organization,” said Mario Carillo, the communications director for Voto Latino. “But there aren’t any levels of voter fraud throughout states that justify some of the laws that make it more difficult to vote.”

Barriers to entry

The ideas behind Voto Latino, according to Dr. Lisa Sanchez, assistant professor at the UA School of Government and Public Policy, are “not unique.” Efforts to boost voter registration and turnout of Hispanics to levels of the general population have stretched back to the 1970s, when political advocate William Valasquez founded the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project. The goals of Valasquez’s organization are clear inspiration for efforts of many modern advocacy groups, Voto Latino being just one of them.

“[Valasquez] realized that one of the best ways to influence politics wasn’t just through walkouts or strikes,” said Sanchez. “The only way to actually get political power was registering Hispanic people to vote and getting Hispanic people in office. Efforts like these definitely aren’t new.”

In addition to Voto Latino, Mi Familia Vota, Promise Arizona, the Voter Participation Center, the League of United Latin American Citizens and many others represent the local, state and national efforts to expand Hispanic participation in Arizona and the nation.

But even though the efforts of Valasquez’s project and its many offshoots span over 30 years, the landscape of the electoral landscape still leaves much to be desired, according to Sanchez.

“In the 2012 election, there was a 20-percent gap in voter registration between eligible white and Hispanic citizens in Arizona,” she said. “The rate of registration has grown steadily in the last several years, but it still leaves much to be desired.”

Much of this gap is the result of the lower socioeconomic status of Hispanics in Arizona and the nation, lack of knowledge of the voting process, lack of access to technology and insufficient manpower of organizations working to register more voters.

“Oftentimes [organizations] are understaffed and have limited resources,” she said. “When it comes to getting large groups of people involved, size matters.”

The volunteer staff of Voto Latino is growing, but altering the demographic landscape of a state like Arizona or an area like Tucson's South Side will require huge amounts of manpower. According to Sanchez, the necessary work to boost registration numbers will inevitably outstrip the capacity of most organizations throughout the state.

“We’ve had about 45 people share their information with us so far to help volunteer,” said Pacheco, one of the chapter’s volunteer coordinators. But so far, only about 15 have consistently showed up to the booth throughout the last few weeks. Similar amounts are prepared to work canvassing shifts on the South Side, but much more work from multiple organizations would be required to close the 20-percent gap between Latino and white voters, Sanchez said.

“The reality is that it’s unlikely to happen anytime soon,” she said.

Ambitious goals in a changing political climate

Another issue that drives enthusiasm for Voto Latino’s outreach efforts, even if not announced as a main goal, is the election of presidential candidates. The start of the UA chapter comes in the wake of unprecedented Hispanic disapproval of Republican candidate Donald Trump. That race is impossible to ignore even with the stated goals of nonpartisan voter registration of Hispanics.

“We’re not here to make Arizona blue, although the Hispanic vote would be a big part of that if that were the case,” said Trevisani.

The idea of turning a state like Arizona blue in this election has met supporters and skeptics since Trump became a major player against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton (including from this publication). Much of the support for this outcome stems from the conventional view that shifting demographics of minority voters will play a key role in determining which candidate is the winner. According to many pundits, President Barack Obama clenched the 2012 election because demographic shifts among non-white voters (Hispanic, African-American and Asian citizens) gave him the advantage he needed in key battleground states.

But upon reviewing polling data and demographic trends, this view has been called into question. Raw demographic shifts in minority groups have actually taken a back seat to the voter turnout and enthusiasm that drove Obama to victory, according to more detailed analysis.

It’s still an open question whether the levels of enthusiasm and turnout for Obama can be reached for Clinton this year. Flipping a state from red to blue is also made more difficult by an increasingly polarized electorate that sticks to voting to whichever candidate has a D or R attached to their name, rather than the actual substance or impact of policy positions.

But workers for Voto Latino don’t seem phased by the electoral challenges of the day. While it might be difficult to persuade college students of the importance of civic participation in a time of historic dissatisfaction with electoral politics, the goal of realizing democratic rights is still an animating one.

“Enhancing people’s access to democracy, through technology, education, outreach, is a goal that’s always driven me and it’s the main goal of this organization,” said Espinoza. Her enthusiasm is met by many other volunteers who take hours out of their school and work schedules to sit at booths, attend meetings and canvass neighborhoods to register voters before the October 30th deadline.

“These elections have consequences,” said Trevisani. “We hope to make people aware of that as we register more of them.”

But the visible impact of this work is fair game for skeptics. Electing a particular candidate or changing the outcome of a ballot vote in Arizona usually requires thousands of new votes at minimum. Changing the direction of a state in a presidential race demands intensive fieldwork and a strong network of volunteers devoted to outreach, education and turnout. The steps of the Voto Latino chapter on the UA campus and throughout Tucson are the first of many in a long uphill battle to expand participation for a new demographic and change the electoral landscape.

“Our vision is beyond the 2016 election season,” said Carillo, the communications director. “We want to set a foundation that will last beyond a single issue or election. That requires closer community engagement and a focus on playing the long game.”

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Isaac Rounseville/TucsonSentinel.com

Enrico Trevisani (standing), president of the UA Voto Latino chapter, registers students to vote on campus