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Election 2020

Younger Voters Expected To Drive Large Increase In Latino Turnout In 2020

The citizen voting age population of Latinos in Harris County increased by more than 50% between 2009 and 2018 – and that’s affecting participation.

Gabriel C. Pérez/KUT
Voters line up to cast their ballot in Austin.

Aldier Merlos, a student at Houston’s Lone Star College-North Harris, just voted in his first presidential election. He cast his ballot for Joe Biden. For Aldier, the issue of how the candidates would treat asylum seekers is personal. His father grew up El Salvador and was drafted into the Salvadoran Army as a teenager to fight in the country's civil war.

"His first tour had finished and he did not want to reenroll, but they were going to force him, and the rebels were looking for him, so he was forced to flee here," Aldier said.

Aldier's father became a citizen and has been eligible to vote for about eight years. But he didn't — largely because he didn't think it would make a difference.

"For the past three years I've been trying to change his mind,” Aldier said. “This year, it was very surprising to hear him ask me, ‘Where can I go vote?'"

It's one of the perennial questions in Texas politics: Will this be the year Latino voters turn out to vote in force?

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The answer to that question this year is largely in the hands of Generation Z and younger Millennials.


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Aldier's situation illustrates the power younger Latino voters have – not only to vote themselves but to influence their parents to do so as well. In Harris County, that could make a massive difference.

Gabriel Cortes, former data journalist at the APM Research Lab, has crunched the census numbers. He found that in 2009, the citizen voting age population of Latinos in Harris County was just short of half a million.

In 2018, the most recent Census data, that number jumped to about 775,000 Latinos, Cortes said.

"It was more than a 50% increase in 10 years,” he said. “That's huge."

Latinos make up about a third of Texans eligible to vote. But historically, they've turned out to vote in numbers far short of that.

The question is whether that's likely to change this year, after nearly four years of Donald Trump as president.

Polling suggests that it will, according to Jeronimo Cortina, who teaches political science at the University of Houston.

"What we know is that, for example, (of people aged) 18-29…68% said that almost certain they will vote,” Cortina said. “And when we asked this same question back in February 2019, it was 58%. So, it increased in a matter of months 10 percentage points."

In Texas, as elsewhere, Latino voters do not represent a united bloc. There are large numbers of conservative Latinos who are likely to vote for President Trump.

But Cortina said that younger Latinos, having grown up and been socialized in the U.S., tend to be more liberal than their parents and grandparents. And the evidence suggests it's younger Latinos that are driving the increased voter turnout this year.

Bolivar Fraga, who works in community engagement for the nonprofit BakerRipley, said he's been seeing that excitement in his own outreach work with students.

"We have seen a greater interest in young folks," Fraga said. “You're talking high school age who are eligible to vote to actually do so more than I have seen in my experience before, when I've done even pre-pandemic voter registration drives at high schools.”

As for what accounts for the increased interest, Fraga said it's issues that most analysts say tend to favor Democrats.

“I think particularly for young Latinos, immigration is a key factor,” he said. “And I do think also what the pandemic has done is shed a larger spotlight, if you will, on inequities that have existed long before.”

Intention is one thing. Actually voting is another. Jeronimo Cortina, from UH, has been tracking and mapping early voter turnout in the county, using Hispanic surnames as a proxy for ethnic identification.

And Latino turnout this year has been unusually strong, he said.

"I think that by the end of early voting and on Election Day, we're going to see significant increases above traditional levels that are around 49, 48% of Latino turnout based on citizen voting age population," Cortina said.

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Andrew Schneider

Andrew Schneider

Politics and Government Reporter

Andrew heads Houston Public Media's coverage of national, state, and local elections. He also reports on major policy issues before the Texas Legislature and county and city governments across Greater Houston. Before taking up his current post, Andrew spent five years as Houston Public Media's business reporter, covering the oil...

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