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1A Across America: The Power Of The Latino Vote

Joshua Johnson, host of the NPR program 1A, explored the issues driving Latino voters to the polls at a community forum in Houston’s East End.

Al Ortiz/Houston Public Media
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo speaking with Host Joshua Johnson at 1A’s Across America town hall event in Houston on April 9. The event was produced in collaboration with Houston Public Media at the Talento Bilingüe de Houston cultural center.

You can listen to the full 1A show on the Houston town hall event at 9 a.m. CST on Thursday, April 25 on News 88.7.

By 2020, Latinos are expected to become the largest non-white voter population in the U.S. The Pew Research Center estimates that 32 million Latinos could cast a ballot in the next national election. But will they?

The answer is a solid maybe.

One study by UCLA found that 96 percent more Latinos voted in the 2018 midterms than in the 2014 elections. Overall voter participation rates were higher in 2018, and prior to election day 2018, Pew found that Latinos were also more engaged last year.


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In Texas, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo believes the increase in anti-immigration policies and political speech is part of what's driving many Latinos to the polls. She was elected to her role in 2018, the Houston-area county's highest elected position.

"At least here in Harris County, the [immigration] rhetoric and attacks are galvanizing people more than they had before and we see this connection between a vote and the policy," says Hidalgo.

Will that also be the case in 2019 and 2020? And how could that change local and national election outcomes?

It's unclear. Historically, Latinos vote in fewer numbers than most other demographics.

Lack of time is likely one major reason, says Jacob Monty, a Houston-area immigration attorney and a member of the political action committee Hispanic Republicans of Texas. "We're working. We're busy." Monty, a third-generation Mexican American, tells 1A. "We're trying to make it to the middle class."

Congresswoman Sylvia Garcia (D-TX) agrees. She was elected last fall as one of the first two Latinas elected to Congress from Texas. Her district includes part of the eastern section of the Houston metro area.

"I was talking to a waitress once at a restaurant and she was telling me that she just felt really bad that she hadn't voted," Rep. Garcia tells 1A."She said, ‘I have three jobs and then I don't want to end up being a waitress all my life so I also go to school ... so by the time I do all that and go to school, I just never have the time.'"

Amanda Williams /WAMU
Rep. Sylvia Garcia (D-TX) was elected to Congress in November 2018.

Rep. Garcia says the least the government could do is improve options for people like this waitress. Her wish list includes: increasing hours at polling places, more early voting options, online voter registration, online voting and making election day a holiday.

"I think we may be able to make a voter out of her because she wants to vote," Garcia says, referring to the waitress. "It's about the access."

Increasing voter access to the polls is also on the mind of Judge Hidalgo. The Democrat was swept into office last fall, and at age 28, she's in charge of the third-largest county in the U.S.

Since taking office, she's overseen changes to Harris County's election system. Voters can now cast ballots at any polling place on election day, instead of being assigned a particular location.

Judge Hidalgo says that will help many people who work far from where they live. Commutes in Harris County, which is almost 2,000 square miles, can be lengthy.

But she thinks there's another disconnect for Latino voters.

"I think about my own family. They didn't vote until this last election, actually," Judge Hidalgo tells 1A. "I think that a lot of folks don't see the direct connection between their participation and the government, and there's a disconnect there and that might be on the part of language access, or government outreach."

Jerónimo Cortina, an associate professor of political science and the Associate Director at the Center for Mexican American Studies at the University of Houston, says there are many factors that impact lower voter turnout among Latinos, including not understanding the American election process.

"One is political socialization," Cortina tells 1A. "Groups that are more recent arrivals to the U.S., they're not as socialized to American politics, and American politics can be complicated – the Electoral College, popular vote, no proportional representation."

Monty agrees. He says many new immigrants come from countries where elections don't seem to matter as they do in the U.S., whether that's because of more authoritarian governments or just a lack of voting institutionalization.

But when it comes to younger generations, things are changing, Cortina says.

"Young people who have lived here all their life, millennials, they are politically socialized," he says. "Then it's a question of whether the young people care enough to participate. In the past two elections we've seen a huge number of young Latinos and Latinas voting, increasing their turnout rate in comparison to recent years. They're more politically savvy than previous generations."

Bianca Martin/WAMU
Maria Reyes was one of several young Latinas who asked questions at the 1A Across America town hall held at the Talento Bilingüe de Houston theater on April 9.

Angelica Razo is with Mi Familia Vota, a non-profit organization that encourages civic engagement. She sees the younger generations challenging their elders to talk about politics and civic engagement in ways they never have before, in a way that wasn't as accepted before.

Razo works with high school students and others who aren't legally able to vote yet — whether because of age or legal immigration status. She encourages them to talk to their families about the importance of voting.

"They become the megaphone in their communities," Razo says.

Watch the full town hall event in the video below:

Written and produced by Amanda Williams, with reporting by Houston Public Media’s Elizabeth Trovall. The town hall event and reporting is part of 1A Across America, a collaboration with six public radio member stations ahead of the 2020 general election.

1A Across America is funded through a grant from The Corporation for Public Broadcasting. CPB is a private, nonprofit corporation created by Congress in 1967 that is the steward of the federal government's investment in public broadcasting.