By: Gebe Martinez
Elections are a time of accountability, a time when the values of presidential candidates are judged by voters and when incumbents are forced to defend their records and rhetoric against ambitious challengers.
This year, unlike any previous election year, an entire group of voters also will be held accountable: Latinos.
After years of being viewed as the “sleeping giant” the group whose voter turnout never comes close to matching its voting-age population the Hispanic vote is expected to be a force this year on Election Day.
Hispanic leadership coalitions, Spanish-language media, and the presidential candidates have spent tens of millions in an unprecedented grass-roots effort to mobilize the Latino vote in as many as 13 states, coast to coast and in the Midwest. In four of those states Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Florida the Latino vote is large enough to determine the outcome of the presidential contest on Nov. 4.
That is, if Latinos vote.
“If, in this election, we do not turn out and vote, then we are the dog that’s all bark and no bite,” warned Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. “If we don’t do it now, then my question is, ‘When are we going to do it?’”
The foundation has been laid for a record Latino voter turnout of 9.2 million, including 2.6 million Hispanics who will be voting for the first time. In the 2000 presidential election, 5.9 million Latinos voted, and in 2004, there were 7.6 million Latino votes cast.
Despite the rising numbers, this year’s Hispanic vote projection is not good enough, Vargas emphasized recently during a meeting with Latino political activists.
“That is an embarrassment, because there are 17 million Latinos who today could vote because they are U.S. citizens at least 18 years of age,” the Latino leader said. “Our challenge is to reach the native-born Latino the Chicano, the Puerto Rican those of us born here, who do take the right to vote for granted.”
In 2004, Hispanic turnout was only 47 percent, compared with 60 percent for African-Americans and 67 percent for non-Hispanic whites.
The backbone of this year’s campaign is “Ya es hora. ¡Ve y vota!” (“It’s Time. Go Vote!”), which builds on the coalition’s 2007 push that produced almost 1.4 million citizenship applications by legal permanent residents. (Not all will become citizens in time to vote because of the federal government’s delay in processing the applications.)
One of the partners, We Are America Alliance, says it is on track to register a half-million new Latino, Asian and other immigrant voters by the end of this week, with a goal of mobilizing 1 million voters in the November election.
During the last weekend of September, another partner, Spanish-language publisher ImpreMedia, inserted 990,500 voter registration forms into its publications in Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, New York and Texas. Media giants Univision and Entravision also are running television and radio spots.
Celebrities are being enlisted. State Farm Insurance Cos. recently sponsored a media tour featuring baseball All-Star David Ortiz, who became a citizen last June. Rock the Vote features pop singer Christina Aguilera in a television spot.
The “Ya es hora” drive also is telephoning Latino households, targeting about 150,000 Latinos who have been registered to vote but tend not to show up.
Separately, the New Policy Institute, a progressive group affiliated with NDN, has paid for Spanish-language radio ads in Colorado, Nevada and the Washington metropolitan area that includes Northern Virginia. The “Adelante” (“Moving Forward”) drive is aimed at first-time Hispanic voters.
Why haven’t Latinos voted more often? Hispanic leaders maintain that one of the biggest blocks to Latino voting is the misinformation given by election officials and poll workers. Organizers are combating that problem by urging Latinos to vote absentee or to call a toll-free telephone bank to get instructions and learn their voting rights.
Certainly, there are plenty of reasons to vote.
Like other voters, Hispanics are worried about the economy, jobs, health care, education and the Iraq war. Unlike other voters, they are disproportionately affected on all of these fronts. They have not forgotten that the first U.S. soldier killed in the Iraq war was an immigrant who had illegally entered the country as a child.
There also is an underlying current of fear shared by Hispanics, regardless of citizenship status, because of the anti-immigrant sentiment that has spread across the country in recent years, according to polls. Like other voters, they want a sensible solution.
The presidential candidates, Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama, are begging for Latino support.
They have saturated the Spanish-language media with advertising and dispatched volunteers to cultural festivals and citizenship ceremonies from California to Florida to enlist voters.
“If you have any doubt about whether you can make a difference, just remember how, back in 2004, 40,000 registered Latino voters in New Mexico didn’t turn out on Election Day. Sen. [John F.] Kerry lost that state by fewer than 6,000 votes,” Obama often reminds Latino audiences.
The Obama campaign pledged to spend $20 million to court the Hispanic vote. The McCain campaign will not say how much it is spending but argues Obama needs to spend more because he is not as well-known as McCain in the Latino community, according to McCain spokeswoman Hessy Fernandez.
McCain won 70 percent of Arizona’s Latino vote during his last Senate reelection effort, but in his presidential campaign, he has been severely criticized by Latino leaders for backing away from his own immigration bill that would have offered illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.
Whether McCain can garner the same level of Latino support in his home state is unknown, Fernandez conceded, but “John McCain is going to work for it” there and everywhere else.
Besides the presidential race, the Latino vote could affect other major contests, such as Senate races in Colorado, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Texas and Virginia.
What if the Hispanic vote does not reach the expected 9.4 million mark?
“It would be a setback to the Hispanic community,” said Andres Ramirez of NDN. But after a better-than-usual performance during the presidential primaries, Ramirez is optimistic. “This is a community that’s engaged and is already voting in very high numbers.”
Gebe Martinez is a longtime journalist in Washington and a frequent lecturer and commentator on the policy and politics of Capitol Hill. Reprinted from Politico (http://www.politico.com/.)