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Young Latino voters in Pennsylvania, Florida could tilt race for Trump, Biden

Yumaira Saavedra of Allentown, Pennsylvania, will join the hundreds of thousands of first-time young Latinos who have already voted.
Image: US-VOTE
Voters in line to cast their ballots during early voting in Philadelphia on Oct. 7, 2020.Gabriella Audi / AFP - Getty Images

Maegan Llerena, 27, still thinks about the 2016 election and how President Donald Trump won her home state of Pennsylvania by a razor-thin margin. While more than 6 million Pennsylvanians voted in the presidential election, about 44,000 votes were enough to carry Trump’s victory.

Llerena, the state director of Make the Road Action in Pennsylvania part of the nation’s largest progressive grassroots immigrant-led organization, told NBC News she is doing everything in her power to get young Latinos out to vote.

“We need to make sure that we take Trump out of office because our families and our neighbors and our community are just literally dying. People will not make it with another four years of Trump,” she said, referring to how Trump’s coronavirus response has resulted in a disproportionate amount of deaths and infections among Latinos, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

At the same time, young Latinos like Armando Ibarra, 35, are ramping up their efforts in Florida to secure Trump’s re-election. Ibarra cited Trump's recognition of Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate leader, his hard-line approach to Cuba and his labeling of former conservative Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, a divisive figure among Colombians, as a “hero."

“Miami is so linked to Latin America in business and culture, that foreign policy is almost like domestic policy,” Ibarra, president of the Miami Young Republicans, said.

A victory for Trump or Biden could hinge on winning two crucial battleground states—Florida and Pennsylvania—and young Latino voters could play a decisive role in a toss-up presidential race.

Latinos are the nation's largest share of nonwhite voters; a record 32 million Latinos make up 13 percent of all eligible voters. But what's more notable is their youth — about 40 percent of eligible Latino voters are 18 to 35, according to census data.

Hispanics are among the youngest racial or ethnic group in the country with a median age of 30, according to the Pew Research Center. One million Latinos are expected to turn 18 every year for the next two decades, meaning it's almost impossible to engage Latino voters without understanding their connection to the nation’s youth vote.

Llerena said Make the Road Action has made 1.25 million calls and sent over a million text messages to Latino voters in Pennsylvania, while the Miami Young Republicans have registered many new voters, sometimes between 300 and 400 people in one day, and recruited hundreds of new Latinos for Trump volunteers.

People line up as early voting begins in Hialeah, Fla., on Oct. 19, 2020.Maria Alejandra Cardona / Reuters

Over 50.3 million people have voted early in part due to fears over Covid-19 exposure on Election Day and voters under the age of 30 represent 9.6 percent of all ballots cast, according to data analyzed by TargetSmart, a Democratic polling firm. More than 2 million of them have voted in 14 battleground states such as Pennsylvania and Florida, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), which studies young Americans’ political engagement. Over 1.2 million young people voted for the first time, a significant increase from the roughly 650,000 youths who voted for the first time at this point in 2016, TargetSmart data shows as of Saturday afternoon.

Over 3.6 million Latinos nationwide have voted early, compared to about 1.5 million who cast ballots at this point in 2016. Nearly 600,000 are young Latino voters under the age of 30; about 66 percent (398,090 voters) of them voted for the first time, according to TargetSmart data as of Saturday afternoon.

Racism, police protests, reproductive rights as voter issues

Yumaira Saavedra of Allentown, Pennsylvania, will join the hundreds of thousands of first-time young Latinos who've already voted. She’s planning on mailing her ballot soon to vote for Biden, though she had voted for Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., in the primaries.

“But when he dropped out of the race, I decided to vote for Biden because I definitely want to vote Trump out,” said Saavedra, who's 18.

Saavedra, who’s Mexican and grew up in a mixed status family, said that Trump’s remarks referring to people coming from Mexico as “bringing crime” and “rapists” have stayed ingrained in her memory since he said them in 2015.

“Wow, this is what he really thinks of us,” she said. “That just completely bombarded me.”

The trans military ban and Trump’s response to the Charlottesville, Virginia, protests in 2017 when white nationalists and counterprotesters clashed, killing one person and injuring 19 others, are also among the reasons why Saavedra decided early on to vote against Trump and organize other young Latino voters like herself.

“I think all these things have made a lot of people are more openly racist,” she said.

Throughout her organizing, Saavedra has found that the nationwide racial reckoning following widespread protests over George Floyd’s killing has motivated many of her friends to go vote, she said.

Young Latino voters reported that racial and ethnic equality is a core issue driving them to the polls. Over 8 in 10 Latino registered voters (85 percent) said they are more likely to vote if it means addressing inequities and systemic barriers, a recent poll from BuzzFeed and Telemundo (NBC's sister network) found.

“It's sad to say, it had to come to a man who died from police brutality to realize that we need to change now,” Saavedra said.

Puerto Rico’s reconstruction after Hurricane Maria is also another issue motivating Puerto Rican voters in Pennsylvania, many of whom settled in the state post-Maria, Llerena said, especially because their family members in the U.S. territory can’t elect the president who’ll be in charge of their recovery.

A woman holds up a sign as Joe Biden speaks at in Miramar, Fla., on Oct. 13, 2020.Carolyn Kaster / AP

Three years later, the Trump administration and local officials still haven't made any real progress updating the island's antiquated electrical grid and rebuilding destroyed houses. While the sluggish response to the deadliest U.S.-based natural disaster in 100 years is prompting many Puerto Ricans to vote for Biden, others like Marlon González remain loyal to Trump.

“He didn't handle it properly, but you cannot just judge one person by one action,” said González, 31, who voted for Trump in 2016 and has done some canvassing in Orlando, Florida, to make sure he gets re-elected.

In his view, some of Trump’s accomplishments such as being the first U.S. president to visit North Korea to renew stalled nuclear talks and his attempts to “bring more jobs into the United States, rather than outsource them to other countries — basically offsets everything else,” González said. At least a fifth of young Latinos plan to vote Republican in this election, the BuzzFeed and Telemundo poll found, a voting bloc that has been important for Republicans in swing states such as Florida.

But Estefany Londoño, 23, a Colombian American who leans Democrat, said that Trump’s efforts to defund certain clinics providing family planning and reproductive health services if they performed abortions or referred patients to centers that did — as well as his insistence on confirming Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court before the election — are some of the issues motivating her to go vote early in Orlando.

Forty-four percent of young voters ages 18 to 39 registered as Democrats or independents in 10 battleground states, including Florida and Pennsylvania, said they would be more likely to vote for Biden if the Trump nominee is confirmed to the Supreme Court, according to a new survey conducted by Civiqs, a polling and data analytics company, on behalf of Alliance for Youth Action, a national network of groups building political power among young people. The same survey also found that the coronavirus has been the top issue on the minds of the young voters for the past four months.

Londoño said she also wants a president who promotes “corporate responsibility” and protects workers.

“It's very concerning to see how these corporations get bigger and more powerful, especially when their workers are being so underpaid, even though they're bringing in and handling so much money on a daily basis,” she said. “We need to have better education, better health care and all of that can happen if these multibillionaires pay their taxes.”

Both Llerena and Ibarra agreed that immigration is an important issue mobilizing young Latinos in their respective battleground states where Trump won by thin margins in 2016.

Latino supporters of President Donald Trump hold placards after Mike Pence addressed supporters at a Latinos for Trump campaign rally in Orlando, Fla., on Oct. 10, 2020.Paul Hennessy / NurPhoto via Getty Images

For Ibarra, a second Trump term would mean an opportunity “to bring freedom and democracy” to Latin American countries such as Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua so “people do not feel like they have no other option, but to flee those countries in order to just live.”

But Llerena said immigrants in Pennsylvania “are worried about how there’s ICE raids happening in Philadelphia” on the same week that Immigration and Custom Enforcement launched a billboard campaign in the state, showing the faces of six immigrants who’d been recently arrested and released by local authorities in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Five of the six immigrants had been charged, but not convicted, in crimes such as public intoxication, disorderly conduct, robbery and aggravated assault, among others.

“The Trump administration clearly doesn’t give a damn about immigrants,” Llerena said, adding that “having another four years of the horror that Trump has already given us in the previous four years” is not an option.

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