The Friday night session was meant to fire up a group of Latino volunteers who were then given “walk lists”— denoting different sections of the central city they would be assigned to cover over the weekend to register Latino voters.
“We’re almost five percent of the voting population (in Toledo), so if that makes a difference, it might just come out favorably for us,” said Velásquez.
Brent Wilkes, executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) stated about 2,000 people have been registered in Ohio so far.
“We’re going to go precinct by precinct, and our goal is to really make sure people are engaging in the electoral process,” said Wilkes. “Too many of our folks don’t turn out for the vote. They’re citizens and they have the right to vote, but they don’t register and they don’t turn out for the election—and because of that, it weakens our voice in the political process.”
“It’s essential—not just for this election, but future elections,” agreed Hector Sánchez, executive director of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA).
“Right now, Ohio is so tight. Every single vote counts. That’s why it’s so important to make sure the Latino community, every single Latino votes. We can be the decisive people in Ohio.”
Ohio’s status as a political swing state in the presidential election has been cause to launch a number of voter registration initiatives this fall. Many political observers see the Latino community as a possible tipping point in the presidential race between Democratic incumbent Barack Obama and Republican hopeful Mitt Romney.
Organized labor is hoping to get out the vote among Democrats in numbers as large as the 2008 presidential race: one of the big reasons Obama became the first black president. A number of swing-state polls show Obama leading the current race in Ohio, but the number of undecided voters still could tip the scales either direction. Union leaders are taking no chances, trying to enlist as many new voters as possible to provide the president with a comfortable margin in Ohio.
Obama carried nearly every major city in Ohio en route to victory four years ago. Ironically, the map of support for Romney in the March GOP primary looks nearly identical— meaning the two candidates may slug it out for supporters in the Buckeye state’s urban core.
“I think, though, when you look at the map, it’s worked out at the moment,” said Wilkes. “The Latino community is definitely the difference in a lot of these key battleground states, including Ohio. As a result, I really think that can raise the political voice of Latinos with the new administration, whether that is Romney or Obama.”
Rural areas almost always sway to the Republican side for president. That means Obama would have to carry major metro areas by enough of a margin to offset losses in most of Ohio’s countryside. Thus, labor leaders in Toledo and elsewhere are concentrating not only on voter registration and early voting, but transporting those supporters to the polls on Election Day.
“We’ve been working very closely with the other chapters, but we decided to get more involved because of how close, how tight the race is,” said Sánchez. “We decided on the importance of the Latino vote and want to set an example in Ohio.”
“We want to make sure Latinos turn out in greater numbers and we think that politicians are going to be more likely to respond to the interests of the Latino community when there’s greater numbers of Latinos that are voting,” Wilkes said.
The voter registration drive has more long-term implications within the Latino community. Organizers want to reverse a long-term trend of a lack of participation by Latinos in the political process, hoping to rev up the Latino agenda in the minds of the eventual president and members of Congress. The idea is to use the Latino population’s strength in numbers to move that agenda forward.
“It’s not enough to just to get them registered,” admitted Sánchez. “The next step is getting out the vote—voter protection, voter mobilization, voter location the entire campaign. It is really important to keep people engaged at a time when Latinos are packing the nation; civic participation is the key to move our community forward.”
“There certainly has been a bit of an enthusiasm gap, but I think people have really started to pick up lately, more enthusiasm as the election approaches,” said Wilkes. “What we’ve been doing is really working hard to explain to the Latino voters that even if you’re unhappy, it’s still important to exercise your right to vote. That’s the only way to bring about change and you’ve got people who pay more attention to our community.”
The LULAC director openly admitted the Latino community votes in much smaller proportion to its overall population. One of every six people in the U.S. now is Latino—a potentially strong voting bloc. By 2050, 30 percent of the American population is projected to be Latino.
“Every year, that voter-age population, U.S. citizens that can vote, they keep growing, too, so what’s going to happen is the Latino vote becomes more and more important,” said Wilkes. “I think for both parties, this means if they don’t have a game plan to help pick up Latino voters, they’re missing out. In marketing, you always go for the new consumers coming on the market—and that’s in essence who Latino voters are.”
Between 12.4 and 12.6 million Latino voters are expected to head to the polls this election cycle, according to the LULAC director. That would be up from three million in 2008.
“That’s pretty remarkable growth. It’s not 50 million, the total Latino population size, but not all those folks are eligible to vote because they’re too young. The Latino population is among the youngest in the country. Many are not citizens yet, so they’re not eligible,” said Wilkes. “But a lot of them are and the gap is the number of citizens who can become citizens but haven’t done that.”
The FLOC founder and president believes voter suppression efforts—including limiting early voting hours and access to the polls—are tactics meant to intimidate many groups, including Latinos already distrustful of the political process.
“I think this issue of impediments to voting is such an outrage and it should be an outrage to America and our historical democracy,” said the FLOC founder and president. “The right to vote is a cornerstone of our democracy. We should be looking for ways to expand it, not restrict it. We’re upset by it and we think it’s dirty tricks to try to restrict people’s right to vote.”
“There’s a large number of permanent legal residents that are eligible—they’ve been here five years, so they’re eligible for citizenship,” explained Wilkes. “If we can just get them to become citizens, a bit of a longer-term project, then they will be in a position to register to vote. Once they are actually citizens, Latinos tend to vote in the same percentages as the other populations.”
If both presidential campaigns took the Latino vote for granted before, those days are now over, according to the LULAC director.
“I think they’re paying very close attention. The Romney camp is in a tough spot, because to win the nomination, he had to move hard-right on some of the key Latino issues,” said Wilkes. “He’s now just trying to figure out a way to undo some of that and I think it’s really hard for him. He’s having trouble connecting, unfortunately.”
The LULAC director stated Obama helped his cause with the executive order aimed at extending amnesty to those eligible under the DREAM Act to finish their studies or serve in the military as children of undocumented immigrants.
“It was a master stroke, it really was,” said Wilkes. “It helped him immensely.”
The LULAC director believes the poll numbers show a point of no return for Romney when it comes to Latino voters. The GOP presidential candidate, in his opinion, failed to engage Latinos and has appeared out-of-touch with the issues of importance to them.
“You can’t do that in the last couple of months,” explained Wilkes. “The Latino community is a very familiar community, a community that wants to get to know you and it’s not something you just do at the last minute. You’ve got to show a more serious, years-long engagement of the community.”
The LULAC director also is troubled by what he called “voter suppression” policies among a Republican-controlled Ohio government.
“They’ve had a toll. A lot of our folks are afraid to register, especially volunteers who might risk getting fined or brought up on charges if they don’t really understand all the rules. In Ohio, (secretary of state Jon Husted) was planning to send out a bunch of letters to people who, at some point in their life, had been illegal immigrants instead of citizens telling them they weren’t eligible to vote. That was a big concern for us. He ended up not doing it,” said Wilkes.
“It’s that kind of thing that really makes it hard for us, because, to be honest with you, it’s tough to get people to vote and to get people to become citizens. You really have to encourage them and if you have somebody on the other side discouraging them. It’s disheartening and quite frankly, weakens our democracy,” he added.
“That’s why we fought a war for independence—no taxation without representation,” Velásquez explained. “That’s what we fought a civil war about. People who are not represented—there was a big issue, a big debate about that. You can argue all you want about states’ rights and federal rights, but the truth of the matter is everybody’s voice should count. Human beings have a right to self-determination and we fought for that in the civil rights movement—and here we are again, going backwards instead of forwards. It’s ridiculous.”