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Election 2016

Will 2016 Be The Year Texas Latinos Vote In Strength?

Naturalization rates for Hispanic immigrants have soared, driven in large part by long-time residents determined to vote against Donald Trump. But that may count for little if native-born Latino citizens, many of them millennials, stay home on Election Day.

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Richard Carranza, Houston ISD Superintendent, a recent arrival from California, registers as a Texas voter alongside students at Sam Houston Math, Science, and Technology Center. Mike Sullivan, Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector, looks on.
Andrew Schneider
Richard Carranza, Houston ISD Superintendent, a recent arrival from California, registers as a Texas voter alongside students at Sam Houston Math, Science, and Technology Center. Mike Sullivan, Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector, looks on.

Houston Public Media/News 88.7 is taking part in the NPR series "A Nation Engaged." This week, the question we're asking along with other public radio stations across the country is: “What does it mean to you to be an American? And what could the next president do to advance your vision?” Given the diversity in Greater Houston, we put the question to new citizens and their children.

Houston Public Media's Coverage of Election 2016

Houston Public Media’s Coverage of Election 2016

"That I take this oath of obligation freely..."

The M.O. Campbell Educational Center in Aldine is built to house massive events. Concerts. Graduations. And once a month, it hosts ceremonies like this one. This is the sound of nearly 3,000 people taking the oath of citizenship.

Most of the people at this ceremony came from Latin America. Some have lived here for decades, but only applied for citizenship this year. One of the main reasons was because of what happened after they took the oath.

"Now that you're United States citizens, you are all eligible to vote..."

Citizenship applications generally spike during a presidential election year. This year, they're on track to pass 1 million. Most observers credit the increase to Donald Trump – a backlash to his campaign pledges of mass deportations and construction of a wall along the Mexican border.

Jonathan Bisso came to the U.S. from Peru when he was 16, more than 20 years ago. He just became a citizen in September. "My voice needs to be heard," Bisso says. "I want to leave a legacy for my daughter, which she's a U.S. citizen, born here. She's eight years old. And things like this cannot go on."

Republican officials have expressed concerns that Trump's remarks could cost the party down the ballot if Latinos come out to vote in force. That's a real possibility in close contests in places like Harris County.

"There's going to be about 100,000 more Spanish-surname registered voters eligible to vote in the 2016 election than there were in the 2012 presidential election," says Hector de Leon, head of voter outreach at the Harris County Clerk's Office.

Still, not everyone who registers to vote actually casts a ballot.

"Latinos have trailed, oftentimes, blacks and whites in about a 15 percentage point to perhaps more than 15 percentage point difference," says Mark Hugo Lopez, director of Hispanic research at the Pew Research Center. "And that was true in 2012. It was also true in 2008, 2004, 2000, 1996, 1992 – you see the pattern."

Nationwide, Hispanic voter turnout is falling even as the number of Latinos eligible to vote rises. That's largely down to age. About half of all eligible Hispanic voters are millennials. That's compared to about a fifth of all eligible whites. It's a lot tougher to convince young people born in the U.S. to vote than it is to motivate newly naturalized citizens.

Edna Olvera was born in Galveston to parents who emigrated from Mexico. I spoke with her at a registration drive, organized by Neighborhood Centers, at East Early College High School in the Second Ward. "I'm only 17, so I really, really, really wish that I could vote, but I can't. I'm not eligible to," Olvera said. "But these kids that are able to do so, they're like, ‘Well, I don't want to vote. I just don't have to vote. Why do I have to vote?'"

Houston ISD has launched a campaign to register every student eligible to vote. The drive kicked off at Sam Houston Math, Science, and Technology Center in North Houston.

Carlos Duarte, Texas state director for Mi Familia Vota, says getting millennials to register in larger numbers is key to building up Latino turnout over the long term. But, "there has not been an investment in the Latino community by any political party or other people that actually invest in getting the vote out. Everybody just hopes that this is going to be the year and just magically people are going to turn out to vote. That is not going to be the case," Duarte says.

To the extent the national parties are reaching out to Latinos, they're focusing on battleground states. They won't waste limited resources on a state that's solidly red, and Texas is expected to remain red until more Latinos come out to vote.

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Andrew Schneider

Andrew Schneider

Politics and Government Reporter

Andrew Schneider is the senior reporter for politics and government at Houston Public Media, NPR's affiliate station in Houston, Texas. In this capacity, he heads the station's coverage of national, state, and local elections. He also reports on major policy issues before the Texas Legislature and county and city governments...

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