(Editors Note: This report is part of a project on voting rights produced by the Carnegie-Knight News21 initiative, a national investigative reporting project by top college journalism students across the country and headquartered at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. It has been edited for length and includes additional reporting on Orange County by Voice of OC. Click here to read the original version of this article and the complete project, titled “Voting Wars — Rights/Power/Privilege.”)
Beginning a few presidential elections ago, the national media began to speculate about the effect of the Latino electorate and even gave it the moniker “the sleeping giant.” But every year, despite increased potential, it seemed the giant hadn’t yet awakened.
Indicators suggest this could be the year: Latinos have registered to vote at increasing rates, and many Latino voters indicated they’re more interested in this election – motivated by issues such as the economy and immigration and by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s anti-immigration stance.
“Harsh rhetoric that has been spewed by Donald Trump, right out of the gate, comparing Mexicans to rapists and murderers, could help galvanize the Latino vote to vote against him,” said Joseph Garcia, director of the Latino policy center for the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University, which researches and analyzes critical issues in the state.
And among the places where an awakened giant promises to have a major effect is here in Orange County.
The Latino population has steadily grown to the point where now one in three OC residents is Latino. And they represent a growing share of registered voters statewide, with a surge in Latinos signing up to vote this year.
They made up 17 percent of the Orange County electorate in the June primary, which is believed to be a new record. In the county seat of Santa Ana, Latinos were 60 percent of voters this June, according to the voter data firm Political Data Inc.
Local political and advocacy groups are very aware of demographics, and groups across the political spectrum are working to court Latino voters.
That’s particularly true in Santa Ana and Anaheim, the two heavily Latino cites that dominate the county’s central core.
“I don’t think there’s too many progressive organizations that aren’t out there working on the Latino communities and making sure they understand how important their vote is,” said Henry Vandermeir, chairman of the Democratic Party of Orange County.
Latinos are now obtaining citizenship and registering to vote at a rate he’s never seen before, Vandermeir added.
“For years everybody’s been looking for the silver bullet that will help get the Latino community out there, and it turned out to be [Republican presidential candidate Donald] Trump.”
On the Republican side, party leaders acknowledge they’re in a tough position with Latinos, but see an opportunity to appeal to concerns that public schools are failing students in places like Santa Ana, which is nearly 80-percent Latino.
The county GOP has outreach teams going door to door to speak with Latino voters about school choice and charter schools.
“We understand that it’s a community that we haven’t performed well with, and we’re working hard to make inroads” with Latinos, said Fred Whitaker, chairman of the Orange County Republican Party.
A Big Gap Between Latinos Who Can Vote and Those Who Do
From a pure population standpoint, the impact Latinos have had California for decades is now being felt nationwide. The U.S. Latino population jumped from 4 percent of the total population in 1965 to nearly 20 percent in 2015, according to Pew Research Center. The growth has been steady and noticeable. Today, there are more than 55 million Latinos in the U.S., and an expected 27.3 million will be eligible to vote in November.
But a longstanding gap remains between Latinos who can vote and those who will. The National Association of Latino Elected Officials projects 13.1 million Latino voters will cast ballots this November, which is a 17 percent increase from the last presidential election. But it’s still less than half of the eligible voters.
And even with their increasing numbers and the so-called Trump effect, several factors might continue to keep Latinos away – or at least prevent the electorate from reaching its full potential – this November. Many candidates have largely neglected this segment of the population. States have implemented new voting restrictions, creating barriers for both registration and voting. And millennials, who tend not to vote, make up nearly half the eligible Latino electorate.
More than 60 percent of the nation’s Latinos have a high school education or less. And almost a quarter live in poverty. Voters who are young, poor and less educated tend to not vote in large numbers, Garcia said.
Yet, even with these barriers, experts are predicting that Latinos will impact tight races in states such as Florida, Nevada and Colorado this November. According to Pew numbers, Latino voters make up 15 percent or more in those three battleground states – so Latino turnout could prove the strength of the voting bloc there.
In California, the pace of Latino voter registration has more than doubled compared to 2012. But even with that bump, their share of registered voters has only gone from 24 to 24.3 percent statewide, said Paul Mitchell, a polling expert and vice president of Political Data Inc.
Latinos might hit 25 percent of registered voters by November, he said, but turnout is critical. If Latinos account for 20 percent of California ballots cast in November, “that would be a big deal,” Mitchell said.
In Orange County, the Latino share of primary voters jumped up this year, going from 8.9 percent in 2012 to 9.1 percent in 2014 to just over 17 percent in 2016, according to figures provided by Mitchell.
Santa Ana, in particular, has a relatively high share of its eligible Latinos voters who are registered, he said.
The reason is that over the past couple of decades Santa Ana has been in a “perpetual state” of organized groups fighting over City Council races and ballot measures, Mitchell said.
This produces a lot of on the ground campaigning. At the same time, he said, in places like Bakersfield, Palmdale, and the Inland Empire, “you’ll find a much higher rate of unregistered Latinos, because simply there has not been decades of organizing on the ground” to register people to vote.
Another factor driving up voter registration is California’s new motor-voter law, which automatically registers people to vote when they obtain or renew their driver’s licenses, unless they opt-out.
“It has really tremendously moved a lot of people from the side of being not active to being active by default,” said Benny Diaz, president of the Orange County chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC).
Come November, there’s a distinct possibility that voters will elect the first Latina to the Orange County Board of Supervisors, Diaz added.
Experts: Cynicism, Unfamiliarity Keep Latinos Away From Polls
But even if that milestone is reached in Orange County, many here and elsewhere will not turn out due to ingrained feelings about how they are treated in America.
Alma Marquez, founder and president of a communications and public affairs firm that focuses on education-related issues and political and civic engagement, said Latinos are often portrayed as apathetic because of their low voter turnout.
But some Latino voters and experts said it’s not apathy: They do care about politics and understand the importance of civic engagement. They said other factors keep Latinos away from the polls, including cynicism, unfamiliarity with voting and language barriers.
“Many of the community members feel as though they’re not really viewed as Americans,” Marquez said. “And so there’s this logic, ‘If I’m not really viewed as American or respected as American, then why should I (vote)?’”
Other Latino voters, like Sabino Nañez, 34, said Latinos will vote “when they feel like they are first-class citizens” instead of third-class citizens.
The Milwaukee resident said when the U.S. Supreme Court blocked President Barack Obama’s expansion of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and Deferred Action for Parental Accountability in June – which would have given parents of U.S citizens legal presence – it discouraged the Latino community even more.
History suggests why Latinos may feel this way. Since the U.S. took ownership of former Mexican territories in 1848, Mexican-Americans have faced discrimination. The vast majority of Mexicans living in the territories became U.S. citizens, but they earned lower wages than their white counterparts. Many could not buy real estate.
Furthermore, Mexican-Americans were not allowed to learn English, which disenfranchised them. And some places denied Latinos the right to vote by creating white-only primary elections, according to LULAC.
David Castorena told News21 that disillusionment will keep him from voting. The 24-year-old Guadalupe, Arizona, native voted for Obama in 2012, but he said he won’t vote in this election. “I just don’t think my vote matters,” he said. “Trump is going to win anyway.”
Marquez said she remembers going with her mother to vote at the neighborhood fire station in southeast Los Angeles when she was young. Her mother, a staunch Democrat, voted in every election.
It was clear to Marquez, now 42, that voting was important, especially when members of the community who were immigrants could not voice their concerns.
“It was always the sense that this is our responsibility,” she said. “We have to vote because we’re voting for not only our family and our community, but for other people who do not have the privilege of voting.”
However, many Latino families don’t have that same history of voting, so voting isn’t necessarily familiar to them, she said.
“Going to the voting booth is intimidating especially if you don’t know how to do it,” Marquez said. “And it’s actually quite embarrassing to show up at any age, and tell people ‘I don’t know how to vote.’”
Latino Outreach Among Candidates Still Weak
Matters aren’t helped when candidates ignore Latinos as a voting bloc, which still often happens, experts say.
Campaigns and political groups often base their voter outreach efforts on certain attributes, such as voting history and economic status. A Stanford University study found that 1 in 5 Latino voters is “unlisted” on the target lists, while more than 90 percent of white voters are listed.
“If we continue the practice of ignoring those voters, we not only prevent robust Latino turnout in election 2016, but we also don’t promote a sustained participation by Latinos and other underrepresented groups in our electoral process,” said Rosalind Gold, director of policy, research and advocacy for the National Association of Latino Elected Officials, or NALEO.
Sergio Arellano, the field director for Hispanic initiatives for the Arizona Republican Party, said Latinos have not only been disenfranchised by the GOP, the Democratic Party has neglected them as well.
“The Republican Party bought into the narrative that Hispanics are Democrat, so for the longest time, people have just let that stand and fall to the wayside,” he said. “When you have a Democratic Party that has free votes, like the ones that the Hispanics provide, the Democrats don’t have to do any engagement in the communities either.”
At this year’s Republican National Convention, several elected officials said they didn’t want to discuss issues that relate more to certain ethnic groups. They said separating the electorate into racial groups was unproductive and unpatriotic.
“I’m not a big fan of identity politics,” Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey said. “I think of our citizens as Americans, and I try to look for issues that attract them to our party.” He added that his platform focuses on the economy and education, which appeals to all citizens, regardless of background.
Traditionally, Latinos vote more heavily Democratic than Republican. But that’s been changing, and more Latinos have listed no party preference.
Two years ago, the Republican National Committee created positions, including Arellano’s, to reach Latino communities in key states with majority-minority representation.
This summer, Trump hired the “Latinas for Trump” founder as Latino outreach director for his campaign. And Clinton hired the president of the Latino Victory Project, a group with a mission to get more Latinos politically engaged, as her deputy director of voter outreach and mobilization.
Garcia, of the Morrison Institute, said it’s not just about making appearances, it’s important that party platforms change to include Latino issues, such as immigration reform, education, raising the minimum wage and health care.
“It’s easier to mobilize around an issue or a cause particularly if it’s an issue or cause that Latinos feel hurt them in general,” said Stella Rouse, associate professor and director of the Center for American Politics and Citizenship at the University of Maryland.
In February, Univision, the leading Spanish-broadcasting network, announced its goal to register 3 million Latino voters before November.
Univision is the fifth-largest network in the U.S. and plays an essential role in providing Spanish-language news and entertainment to the Latino community. Univision partnered with organizations on national and local levels to promote the effort.
This year, the company created the Your America website, which allows people to sign up for text message updates about the election. And more than 100,000 people attended forums and registration drives that Univision hosted across the country.
Antonio Gonzalez, president of the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project, said he expects the gap between the number of eligible Latino voters and actual voters to decrease. However, he said, it always gets smaller in presidential cycles.
Gonzalez said to expect a “mad frenzy” of voter registration that will drive the number of registered Latino voters from 14 million in 2012 to 16 million by November, but it could grow even higher if the two main political parties prioritize resources to register Latinos.
Voto Latino, which began in 2004, is trying to engage younger Latinos. The group developed a mobile app called VoterPal that allows users to register to vote on their smartphone and register their friends and family as well
A Latino Majority on the Horizon
Census population projections suggest that in 2044, the U.S. will become a majority-minority nation with Latinos making up almost a quarter of the entire population.
In California, at 39 percent of the state’s population, Latinos make up a larger portion of California than whites.
“Latinos have always been a big population here, but they weren’t always a voting population,” Gonzalez said. “They became one. They realized they needed to become a voting population in order to have better lives.”
The state has 1,377 Latino elected officials, and 34 of them serve at the state and federal level, according to NALEO’s directory of Latino elected officials.
In Los Angeles, almost a quarter of employees in management, business, science and arts occupations are Latino. Nationally, only 17 percent of those occupations are held by Latinos.
“We’ve been here 10,000 years,” Gonzalez said. “We have a large presence in institutions, universities, churches, business and government.”
Gonzalez said California’s Latinos, specifically in Los Angeles, had a breakthrough in the 1980s and 1990s sparked by an acrimonious period of racism and struggle. He said the Latino population had to become organized and do “blood, sweat and tears work.”
“You have to run the candidates and lose and do the (lawsuits),” he said. “You have to break through.”
Although many groups have focused their efforts on spurring those changes, some of it will happen naturally as the Latino population ages.
Millennial voters make up a larger share of the Latino electorate than they do any other ethnic group. Research predicts this trend will continue.
In Orange County, Latino activism has been resurgent in recent years, with campaigns like voting rights lawsuits successfully pushing cities like Anaheim, Garden Grove and Fullerton to implement district-based voting. This voting approach, which advocates say gives minority groups a greater shot at representation, will take place in the November election for the first time in Anaheim and Garden Grove.
There’s now a stronger sense among Latinos “that being engaged can have a pragmatic outcome,” said Jose Moreno, a longtime activist with Los Amigos of Orange County who’s now running for Anaheim City Council.
“Working people people across racial lines” are saying “enough is enough,” he said. “And I think we’re gonna see that more than ever in this election.”
Voice of OC reporter Nick Gerda contributed reporting and writing to this article. He covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at [email protected].
Pam Ortega, from News21, contributed to this article.