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As Democrats debate in California, the state has millions of unregistered Latino voters

Focus groups found anger over Trump policies have the "ingredients" to "shatter records for Latino voting,” though the key is to register and engage voters.
CHIRLA volunteer Diana Ramos registers Esperanza Artiga who emigrated to the U.S. from El Salvador 45 years ago, to vote in the U.S. presidential election in Los Angeles
Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA) volunteer Diana Ramos, 23, right, registers Esperanza Artiga, 64, to vote in the U.S. presidential election, in Los Angeles on Sept. 27, 2016.Lucy Nicholson / Reuters file

Millions of Latinos in California are still not registered to vote despite the state's efforts to make voting easier.

In the 2018 midterms, Californians experienced a surge in voter registrations, so that some 20.34 million are now registered, including 5.3 million Latinos, according to Political Data Inc.

The latest report from California Secretary of State Alex Padilla's office says that some 25.2 million people in the state are eligible to vote. The state does not collect ethnicity on registrations, but in 2018, when about 15.7 million Californians were registered, 3.4 million Latinos were not registered to vote.

California is the state that has led the resistance to Trump administration policies, primarily through legal battles in the courts. In addition, California has been facilitating voting ahead of 2020, including allowing registration on election day, early voting and mail-in periods and registering before turning 18 by election day.

The disengagement of millions of Latinos raises the stakes for Democratic presidential candidates who will be in Los Angeles on Thursday for the sixth presidential debate.

The party has been troubled by a near lack of diversity among candidates who qualified for the debate and criticism over a nominating process that allows two states that are more than 90 percent white to vote first in the Democratic nomination race.

The Trump factor

While Trump is certainly a motivating factor for Latinos turning out to vote, focus groups of California Latinos not registered or registered but not voting showed they have a tangible fear over the stepped up immigration enforcement, mixed emotions about the economy and an interest in political participation.

The focus groups were commissioned by BOLD PAC, the political action committee of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and conducted by Latino Decisions polling firm, which is working to increase Latino voter registration in certain congressional districts.

“The negativity surrounding this administration certainly provides an important opportunity to achieve record Latino turnout comparable to 2018,” a memo summarizing the BOLD PAC focus groups says. “However, voters will only come out if they feel they are voting for someone or something that is going to positively impact their lives.”

The groups were done in Spanish and English with participants from nine congressional districts in Orange County and the Central Valley, which is the Fresno area.

Seven of the congressional districts flipped from Republican to Democrat in 2018 and Republicans were re-elected by thin margins in two.

An opening for congressional candidates?

Some 800,000 Latinos in those districts did not vote, with half not registered. BOLD PAC also hoped to use its findings to motivate congressional candidates it has endorsed to reach out to unregistered Latinos.

“This creates an opportunity for congressional candidates in this region to expand on the coalition of Latino voters that helped elect them last cycle,” Gisel Aceves, BOLD PAC’s political director, said. “While the Trump administration has targeted Latinos disproportionately, Trump alone is not a sufficient motivator to get people to the polls.”

While California is certain to go blue, Democrats are keenly aware their presidential candidate, as well as congressional candidates in some districts, must excite a coalition of voters and be able to draw out the party’s base that is increasingly made up of voters of color.

Of the candidates who will be on Thursday night’s debate stage, the most recent Telemundo poll showed Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders are most preferred by Latinos.

The only Latino candidate in the race, Julián Castro, did not meet the polling threshold to qualify for the debate, though he has ranked higher in polls with larger Latino samples.

According to a BOLD PAC memo outlining the findings of the focus groups, participants felt the country was headed in the wrong direction and that most of what has come from the Trump administration has been negative.

When they were asked to name something positive done by the Trump administration, they cited his business background, the strength of the economy and the stock market, and low unemployment.

But they also expressed the view that the Trump economy was largely benefiting the wealthy few and their wages weren’t keeping pace with increases in the cost of living, according to the memo.

“Women in the English-speaking Orange County group pointed out that families are ‘living paycheck to paycheck and one small setback can have devastating consequences,’” the memo states.

Overlooking the youth vote?

The focus groups showed that “the ingredients are certainly there to shatter records for Latino voting” because many felt the Trump administration had made them feel helpless and under attack, angry and “ready to fight back.”

The focus groups also showed a strong sentiment among men in the Spanish-speaking Central Valley group of seeing Trump policies, actions and rhetoric as personal attacks.

“Almost all participants in this group agree that these feelings make them much more motivated to vote in 2020,” the memo said. “This is an important group to mobilize because traditionally Hispanic men have lower voter turnout rates than women.”

Albert Morales, political director at Latino Decisions, said campaigns will often tell their staff to avoid reaching out to voters without a history of voting, even if they are registered.

But increasingly new voters are young and brown and don’t have a history of voting and since they don’t hear from a candidate, they are less likely to vote, Morales said.

Latino voters are very young and some 1 million Latinos who are citizens, turn 18 every year, and are eligible to vote.

“These voters are not going to show up on any polling because they are not going to be in any voter files,” which pollsters rely on to come up with samples to poll, he said.

The midterm elections did see a substantial increase in the turnout among California's young people, as well as among eligible Latinos and Asian Americans, when compared to 2014.

Previous Latino Decisions polling shows that when asked, more than 70 percent of Latinos say they are planning to vote in 2020, and before 2018 that number had been at 50 percent.

“We still have the momentum, but it’s incumbent upon Democrats to make the investments” in Latino outreach, education and turnout, Morales said.