The numbers are stunning.
Every month, 66,000 American Latinos turn 18, according to a Pew Research Center study. Not only are young Latinos a potential gold mine of voters who could have a monstrous influence on Election Day, they could be the key to boosting turnout among older Hispanic voters as well.
Maria Teresa Kumar, CEO and President of Voto Latino, the nation’s largest voter registration initiative for Latinos, says politicians and political parties make the mistake of looking at a Latino millennial as just one vote.
“Unlike other millennials who have parents who either have a history of voting or have been in this country for a long time, this generation of Latinos, they’re the first ones in their families who are eligible voters,” she said. “So, the idea of sparking interest in politics to them is very important because if we get them excited about voting there’s the likelihood that their parents and family will get engaged with them.”
But, Kumar acknowledges, young Latinos “are the hardest to reach. It’s because they don’t have any history of voting and if you’re running a campaign, you’re going to go after sure voters and people who have voted in the past. It’s a lot less taxing on your campaign and a lot less expensive.”
Voto Latino is hoping to motivate millennials to participate in the process. Part of that challenge is convincing young Latinos that it’s worth their time to vote, even though they are turned off by politicians who assume that Latinos only care about one issue, as well as those who use that one issue to stigmatize Latinos.
It’s not so much that there is a need for a Latino political candidate in this election season, as it is a need for any candidate to realize that Latino issues are simply American issues.
Although Democrats by far still have the overall support of most Latino voters, young Latinos have grown increasingly dissatisfied with the party, most recently because of the Obama administration’s delay on immigration reform. Kumar also said they don’t like the way some members of Congress from both parties talk about immigration, including their tendency to over-generalize it as a Latino issue.
“[There’s] so much racially-volatile language associated with immigration reform,” she said. “Unfortunately a lot of Latinos feel that they’re being attacked unfairly. Especially if you’re here as a citizen and as an eligible voter, that doesn’t necessarily mean that immigration is your top issue.”
Political affiliation aside, reaching out to Latino millennials as a whole takes more than promoting the right issues at the right time. According to Kumar, the ideal political candidate for a millennial today retains an understanding that it’s less about legislation and more overall about life.
“The ideal candidate for a millennial Latino is one who recognizes the value of family and the importance of not tearing families apart and keeping them strong,” said Kumar. “They would be on a platform to pass immigration form and they would see it as the civil rights issue of our time. They would have a frank conversation with America saying we will not be economically viable without the immigrants and their labor and their sweat.”
Candidates also need to recognize that there are less politically patronizing but equally important issues on the radars of young Latinos today.
“We have to pass immigration reform so we can start talking about real issues,” said Kumar.
“Those include a young person’s access to an affordable education and also a young woman’s access to contraception and the ability to make decisions for herself and her body. What most folks don’t realize is the average American voter is 40 or 42 years old. The average Latina voter is 27. So when you start talking about issues of minimum wage, when you start talking about issues of education, when you start talking issues of a woman’s right to choose, these are things that most Latinas are arguing in the present–and it makes them pay attention even more.”
Family remains a huge factor within the Latino community, but just like other young women, many Latinas are delaying marriage to focus on their careers. As a twenty-something Latina, I am part of growing cultural shift in how young women in my community see themselves. Today’s Latina sees her future shaped more by herself – her goals, her education, her work ethic. That why more so than their parents, grandparents and even their male counterparts, millennial Latinas are showing up to the polls. Their futures depend on it.
“Young Latinas actually lead their demographic over and over when it comes to participation,” said Kumar. “About 51 percent of eligible Latinas go out and vote while with young men, typically 39 percent of them will.”
The strongest display of this was the 2012 election, in which young Latinas were second behind African American women in voting for Obama, their turnout influenced by the stakes for women’s health, particularly reproductive rights.
As for Voto Latino, its initiative to motivate and move Latinos to the polls includes a diverse lineup of eye-opening workshops, such as “United We Win,” a joint effort with fellow organization GlobalGrind. The campaign brings together both Latinos and African Americans to highlight and discuss how minorities are often targeted for racial profiling and how problems within local governments can be counteracted when the community votes.
Kumar noted that in 2012, 54 percent of black voters in Ferguson turned out to vote for Obama. “The following year when it came to deciding who was going to be their mayor–and it’s the mayor who appoints the police chief–less than 6 percent of Ferguson went out to vote. So it’s not surprising that if you are not participating in the electoral process you’re not just going to have people that don’t necessarily look like you, but more importantly may not understand your community and don’t reflect your values.”
There’s also Voto Latino’s “Pride in Our Culture, Power in Our Vote” campaign, in which, alongside 85 other Hispanic organizations, they used Hispanic Heritage Month to register young Latinos and their families to vote. This past September on National Voter Registration Day, of which Voto Latino was a founding partner, it helped register 100,000 voters. During the past year the organization has registered more than 300,000.
“The idea is that if we provide access to information and the ability to meet the right people, Latinos will be unstoppable,” said Kumar. “They’ll be able to fulfill whatever desires they have to make it in America.”
Bianca Betancourt is a multimedia journalist and editor-in-chief of CIRCUS Magazine who currently resides in Chicago, Illinois. Follow her on Twitter: @BiancaGBee