WASHINGTON —As students return to high schools and colleges across the country, a number of Latino groups are ramping up efforts to register young voters with midterms less than 80 days away.
“Our goal is once they get their class schedule and get settled where they’re living, we can approach them and they can see what their (voting) options are,” said Jared Nordlund, a Florida-based civic engagement senior strategist with UnidosUS, a national Latino advocacy organization.
Earlier this year,UnidosUS launched The Power of 18 to reach new and potential voters in high schools and increase their numbers at the polls.
“We know that young people are not voting in the numbers commensurate with their representation in the population and Latinos are a very young population,” said UnidosUS Deputy Vice President Clarissa Martínez de Castro.
The group aims to get young Latinos to think of voting as a regular habit that starts at 18.
“Right now, voters are sick of politicians and campaigns coming to talk when they need their vote, so the idea here is, let’s make voter registration a rite of passage of high school graduation, not just when there’s an election," said Martínez de Castro. "In the same way that many young people talk about getting their learners permit or their driver’s license, this would be part and parcel of that.”
UnidosUS registered 30,000 new voters in Florida in the last three months, and they calculate about 20 percent of those are young voters. Nordlund said they are seeing more motivated prospective voters, and they hope to register 50,000 new voters by the midterms.
Olivia Martínez is one of 803,000 Hispanics who turn 18 this year. The Washington, D.C. native says she is “absolutely” voting in November and excited about casting her first ballot.
Groups are focusing on first-time voters like Olivia who have been spurred into action by the Parkland, Fla. school shooting and the subsequent March For Our Lives protests that resulted in record-breaking voter registration numbers and continued efforts by organizers to increase voter participation across the country. The Road to Change voter registration initiative resulted in a significant bump in voter registration numbers in Pennsylvania and other states.
“I participated in the marches and demonstrations because we as young people are fed up and we have to do something," said Martínez."And that means making sure we vote in November and I can’t wait to do that.”
But will they vote?
It may be too early to forecast whether November will see a wave of young Latino voters, according to Stella Rouse, an associate professor and Director of the Center for American Politics and Citizenship at the University of Maryland.
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“We may still see a significant jump, it may still happen but it just hasn’t materialized to this point," said Rouse, co-author of the upcoming book, "The Politics of Millennials: Political Beliefs and Policy Preferences of America’s Most Diverse Generation. "It remains to be seen. We expect to see some increase, but the question is how much.”
Though some states have same-day registration and other factors that may boost voter turnout, midterms historically have lower participation rates and young people are already at a deficit when it comes to registration and voting, Rouse points out.
According to The Center for Information and Research on Civil Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, the youth vote’s share of the electorate has been increasing slightly since 2008.
But in 2016, only 24 million young adults between the ages of 18-29 cast their ballots — only half of the eligible voters. Among young Latinos, just 43 percent between 18-29 registered in 2016 and less than a third voted, according to an analysis by USC.
However, over 15.2 million Latinos between the ages 18 - 24 are eligible to vote in this year's elections, according to Unidos US.
The group Voto Latino pioneered an app that scans a state-issued ID and automatically fills out voter registration information.
Young Hispanics "have the potential to drastically change the narrative, the political landscape, and direction of our country for years to come,” said Voto Latino co-chair Brandon Hernández.
The group recently announced that it plans to register at least one million new voters by 2020 in a grassroots and digital campaign Voto Latino is calling Somos Más.
Using tools that make voter participation easier can make a difference, say some young adults.
“Using technology has gotten me and several of my peers registered to vote because it’s simple and it’s fast and I think convenience is very important when you need to get people registered to vote,” said Jonathan Ornelas, 19, from Stockton, California.
A survey this spring of young Americans by SurveyMonkey and Cosmopolitan Magazine found that 68 percent are “absolutely certain” or “will probably” vote in the upcoming midterms, with more than half saying that the results of the 2016 presidential election are a motivating factor.
“The more I talk with people my age, the more they tell me they are definitely voting in November," said Jema Esparza, 20, who was born and raised in the U.S. by parents who immigrated from Zacatecas, Mexico. "We can’t be sitting around anymore."
Others are not so enthusiastic. Omar Zelaya, 22, lives in the Washington, D.C. metro area and though he is registered, he has no plans to participate in November.
“I don’t think my vote counts very much. I think politicians ignore the input that we’re trying to give them and I don’t feel like they’re going to take what we say and run with it, said Zelaya.
University of Maryland's Rouse said that the traditional way of measuring engagement — voter turnout —may not present the most clear and accurate picture on civic participation and engagement among today’s young voters.
“Millennials are engaged, they’re just not engaged in the traditional ways that we measure engagement as much as older people would like them to be," said Rouse. "They don’t have a positive view of political parties, they are much more likely to be independent and don’t believe that the traditional ways of getting things done is working."
She said more young adults are running for office, a factor that is sometimes overlooked.
"They’re participating and trying to change the system and I don’t think enough of that is getting talked about,” said Rouse.
Alejandra Cruz, 19, who lives in Oklahoma City, was surprised that voters in her deeply red state recently approved legalizing medical marijuana after a grassroots effort.
"We thought our state was going to be the last state to legalize that," said Cruz. "Our vote is powerful.”
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