‘More Important Than Ever’: The Race to Boost California’s Latino Vote

A team of phone bankers with the nonprofit Power California meet virtually over Zoom in October to urge young Latino voters in the Central Valley to cast their ballots. (Courtesy of Power California)

Alondra Lara is fired up to vote for the first time. The college freshman said she intends for her ballot choices to represent not just herself, but also family members who aren’t citizens, including some undocumented immigrants.

“It's really important for me to not only express my voice, but express my voice for those who cannot vote,” said Lara, 18, who was born and raised in Sanger, a small city in California's Central Valley. “It's more important than ever for people of my color, my ethnicity, to go vote right now.”

To urge other young Latino citizens to participate in the election, Lara leads a team of phone bankers at 99Rootz, a youth organizing project of the nonprofit group Power California.

Three times a week, Lara’s team connects virtually over Zoom to keep each other company while they take on the often difficult task of cold-calling thousands of registered young voters under 35 in Merced and Fresno counties.

Before the pandemic, 99Rootz would hold in-person meetings and rallies, and phone bankers would work together at an office in Fresno.

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“We would be sitting right next to our friends. We would feel connected,” said Lara, an art major at CSU Fullerton. “We are trying to emulate that with Zoom. But it’s tough.”

With less than two weeks before election day, civic engagement groups are racing to contact Latino voters, who have historically had lower turnouts than the general population. Even in California, where Latinos represent nearly a third of all eligible voters, their turnout has typically been lower than for white and Black voters.

There are signs of strong enthusiasm about the election in California. Nearly 6 million people have already turned in their ballots by mail, including more than a million Latinos.

But in the pandemic, the need for social distancing and the fear of infection present new challenges for tried and true methods of voter outreach. And experts say the impact this will have on efforts to mobilize this key voting bloc is still largely unknown, as the majority of Latinos tend to cast their ballots in person.

During the 2018 elections, nonprofits helped increase Latino representation by knocking on doors and talking with voters about how ballot choices impact them, said Lisa García Bedolla, a UC Berkeley political scientist and author of the book “Latino Politics.” Greater participation by Latinos helped Democrats flip seven congressional seats in the state that year.

“If Latino voters are engaged, if people reach out to them and talk to them about the things that they care about ... they vote,” said García Bedolla. “And so the challenge this time is, are we able to have those conversations, given the difficulty of connecting with people in this moment?”

Alondra Lara, 18, leads a team of phone bankers with the nonprofit group Power California virtually from her home in Sanger, California. "It's more important than ever for people of my color, my ethnicity, to go vote right now," she said. (Courtesy of Power California)

Even a small increase in Latino voters could make a big difference in competitive races, such as the contest between Democratic Rep. TJ Cox and his challenger, Republican David Valadao, in the 21st Congressional District. Valadao lost the seat two years ago by less than a thousand votes.

Latinos represent about 60% of all eligible voters in that district, which includes Kings County and parts of Kern, Tulare and Fresno counties.

The Cox and Valadao campaigns have raised a combined total of more than $8 million, and they’re blanketing the airwaves and social media with advertisements, including some in Spanish.

José Luis León has heard the ads, but he has not followed the race much, and he’s not even sure he will vote.

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“I am still considering it,” said León, 57, who owns a restaurant in the city of Lemoore in Kings County.

León said he is disappointed with both presidential candidates, and doesn’t feel well informed about the rest of the races and measures on the ballot.

He said he wished there was more in-person outreach to voters like him, but he has not been contacted yet by any campaign or organization about this election.

That’s not an uncommon story, especially in rural towns in the Central Valley, where local grassroots organizations are often cash starved, said Pam Whalen, organizing director with the Dolores Huerta Foundation.

The foundation is contacting Latino voters in small towns spread throughout Fresno, Tulare, Kern and parts of Los Angeles counties. In addition to phone banking and sending text messages to voters, hundreds of volunteers are donning masks and going door-to-door to engage with neighbors from a safe distance.

“It’s the most effective way to communicate with voters. ... Having that conversation by the door can be incredibly life changing,” said Whalen, who has worked in voter outreach in the region for about two decades.

“But we’ve been hampered by the pandemic,” she said. “That effort has not been nearly as robust as in the past.”

Lourdes Oliva (l) with the Dolores Huerta Foundation confers with volunteer canvasser Eugenia Gonzalez in the Central Valley town of Parlier on Oct. 11, 2020. (Lupe Santillan/ Dolores Huerta Foundation)

Voter turnout in California does not get the attention or the billions of dollars currently being spent to increase voter participation in battleground states.

Most of the work to convince infrequent or unlikely voters to become active ones is carried out by community organizations that typically operate on shoestring budgets, said García Bedolla, the UC Berkeley political scientist.

Political campaigns — which care about winning elections, regardless of how many people actually turn out — focus most of their efforts on reaching reliable voters. But most Latinos are not, she said.

“If you are a new voter, if you are a low-propensity voter, you are not going to get contacted by a campaign,” said García Bedolla. “And that's the space that community-based organizations are trying to fill.”

Staffers with the Latino Community Foundation said they have invested over $500,000 this year into grassroots, Latino-led civic engagement organizations in California, including the Dolores Huerta Foundation and Power California.

That’s part of a multiyear, $10 million initiative aimed at raising the electoral representation of Latinos in the state, said Christian Arana, the foundation’s policy director.

“A lot of these groups that we have invested in are developing leadership opportunities for young people, like, ‘How do you go to a city council meeting and do a public comment, or call a member of Congress to support legislation?’ ” Arana said.

“Because if Latinos — especially young Latinos — don’t understand their power to begin with, they are not going to turn out to vote,” he added.

Mindy Romero, who directs the Center for Inclusive Democracy at the University of Southern California, said a big push to engage Latinos is still needed before Nov. 3.

In the 2012 presidential election, less than 40% of eligible Latinos voted in California. In 2016, that figure grew slightly to 46%, according to figures compiled by Romero’s center. Turnout could increase this year as well, she said.

“If we get above 50%, that's fantastic,” Romero said. “Now, that means it’s still a long way to go, but it's progress.”

By contrast, nearly 70% of California’s eligible white and Black voters cast ballots in the 2016 presidential election.

California’s 21st Congressional District represents a big opportunity for voter engagement, said Romero, because so many eligible Latino residents haven’t been voting.

“If turnout goes up just a little bit, that will influence who wins and who doesn’t win,” she said. “They have a much bigger sway.”

From her home in Sanger, Alondra Lara is one of the voters who will decide that congressional race. Ensuring more Latinos have a say in the election keeps her motivated to continue phone banking, she said.

“My hope in this election is to see those Latino voters voting,” Lara said. “I really hope that they know how much their voice does matter.”