WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute is partnering with Voto Latino, a group focused on civic engagement of young Latinos, to launch with the start of Hispanic Heritage Month what they are calling a massive online voter registration drive.
"I have never seen an election as consequential as this one," said María Teresa Kumar, president and CEO of Voto Latino. "The job of the Latino community is to make sure everyone is participating, because then that is when we start driving the agenda."
"They (campaigns) are using our community as scapegoats because they're not afraid of us. This is the election to shut it down and say no more," Kumar said during the opening session of this week's CHCI Public Policy Conference.
CHCIVotes.com, the online voter registration initiative that officially begins Thursday, includes regularly sending out election alerts and information to those who register — such as how to obtain an absentee ballot — as part of their efforts to keep the community engaged in the weeks leading up to the November 8 elections.
Kumar adds that a key part of the strategy is to reach young Latino voters, those 18-35 years old this year, that researchers say will represent 44 percent of the Latino vote in November. As part of the voter registration drive, Voto Latino is offering VoterPal, an app for smartphones that speeds the process of registering to vote by scanning information from a driver's license directly onto a voter registration form.
The groups are non-partisan although both support ideas on issues such a immigration reform that align more closely with Democrats. CHCI helps foster young Latino leaders and raises money for education efforts. It was formed by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which is open to members of both parties but whose current members are all Democrats.
Republicans formed their own caucus, the Congressional Hispanic Conference. Several Republican members founded the Congressional Hispanic Leadership Institute, which operates similarly to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute.
"The average Latino voter is 27 years old. We have to go where the majority of young people are, because no one is talking to them and telling them that they are part of the political process. We found that for all the hard work we did (registering people) in 2012, we weren't meeting the need. There were 800,000 Latinos that turned 18 that year alone, but we only registered 620,000. This (VoterPal) is a tool for them to participate."
Several national Latino groups told NBC Latino last week that they have less funding for registering and turning out Latino voters as donors have decided to funnel money to state coalitions of voter registration groups.
Matt Barreto, co-founder and managing partner of the polling firm Latino Decisions said many polls are leaving Latinos out of the picture and telling an incomplete narrative of voter participation in this election year.
"We've taken a look at some of the polls and I think there's a principle that I think some pollsters don't get right. We have to make sure we are using bilingual interviewers and bilingual mechanisms to contact people and that we're not just hanging up and excluding people," said Barreto, who does polling for the Clinton campaign.
"You're not getting an accurate portrait of our community (without bilingual interviewers), and that's what many of the mainstream pollsters are doing," said Barreto. "They're reaching Spanish speakers and hanging up. It's hard to believe that still happens in 2016."
Sen. Robert Menéndez (D-New Jersey) told the gathering that the road to the White House runs through the Latino community, with immigration playing a key role.
"In 2012, fewer than half of Latino eligible voters cast a ballot, and 38 percent of Latino millennials voted. We have to do better. Our future depends on it and the issues we care about depend on it. Allowing our brothers and sisters to come out of the shadows and put them on a clear path toward earned citizenship is the civil rights issue of our time and our generation," Menéndez said.
"And we know who's trying to stop us, and that's why we absolutely have to vote in these elections. It is for them (who can't vote) that we have to vote. On January 22nd of next year, I intend to come back to Washington and put comprehensive immigration reform at the top of the new president's (agenda) and the new Senate's (agenda)." Menéndez was one of the architects of the bipartisan Senate immigration bill that failed to move forward in the Republican-led House in 2013.
Menéndez's comments on immigration mirror what polls among Latinos have said about the issue. Surveys by Latino Decisions and others have found that most U.S. Hispanics support a pathway to immigration reform.