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Young Latinos mobilized, voted and were pivotal in 2020. Organizers want to keep it going.

"There's a good chance that a majority of those people who were first-time voters will continue to vote," says political scientist Stella Rouse.
Cuban American first-time voter Sophia Hildalgo applauds as Joe Biden speaks during a drive-in rally in Miramar, Fla., on Oct. 13.Jim Watson / AFP - Getty Images

The efforts of Latino youth organizers in battleground states to mobilize new voters paid off as young Hispanics boosted their votes and their political voice in November's presidential election.

"We're getting a good sort of picture about the fact that young people in general, and then Latinos more specifically, certainly came out to vote," said Stella Rouse, a political scientist and director of the Center for Democracy and Civic Engagement at the University of Maryland.

Of the more than 8.6 million Latinos nationwide who voted early, about 2.4 million were first-time and newly registered voters, many of whom are young, she said.

"There's a good chance that a majority of those people who were first-time voters will continue to vote," Rouse said. The key, she said, is continued outreach and mobilization.

According to NBC News exit polling data of early and Election Day votes, 13 percent who voted for president in 2020 cast ballots for the first time, compared to under 10 percent in 2016. One in 10 of the new voters in 2020 were between the ages of 18 and 24.

Preliminary data shows that youth voter turnout was significantly higher in the 2020 election than in 2016, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), which studies young Americans’ political engagement.

Estimates show that between 52 and 55 percent of all eligible young voters under the age of 30 voted in the presidential election. Once all votes are counted, the center projects that youth turnout may rise to 53 and 56 percent, compared to 45 and 48 percent in 2016.

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.

"As we see that youth vote increase, we do see the numbers of Latino young people really increasing as well," Rouse said.

'Our people were motivated'

At least 69 percent of Latino voters under the age of 30 favored Joe Biden, according to NBC News exit polls.

Maegan Llerena, 27, the state director of Make the Road Action in Pennsylvania, said she has been mobilizing voters in her community since Donald Trump won her state in 2016 by about 44,000 votes.

Make the Road Action, which is part of the nation’s largest progressive grassroots immigrant-led organization, made 2.2 million calls and sent over a million text messages to Latino voters in Pennsylvania alongside many other voter outreach efforts.

“Make no mistake: Black and Latinx voters delivered this win. We knew the path to victory for Pennsylvania and the presidency ran through communities of color," Llerena said. "In a pandemic that’s disproportionately killed and infected Latinx and Black communities, our lives were on the line, and our people were motivated."

In Florida, the Trump campaign spent a lot of time engaging Latinos in the state. Even though the majority of Latino voters in Florida sided with Biden, Trump gained support from Latinos in the state to make up for some of the support he had lost from other voters in Florida, effectively helping the president win Florida, said Marlon González, 31, who did canvassing in Orlando for Trump.

Tania Unzueta, political director of Mijente, a national Latino grassroots movement born after the #Not1More Deportation campaign in 2015, worked to mobilize young Latino voters in Arizona and Georgia — states in which "Black and Latino youth may have single-handedly made Biden competitive," according to CIRCLE.

Biden won both states by thin margins.

Unzueta credits a generation of young Latinos — who grew up in Arizona under the restrictive SB 1070 anti-immigrant law and the measures enacted by former controversial Sheriff Joe Arpaio — for harnessing the support of Latino voters in favor of Biden.

"Some of our doors-knockers were people whose parents got raided by Joe Arpaio 10 years ago," Unzueta, 36, said.

Mobilizing battlegrounds — and upcoming races

A similar pattern was seen in Georgia, where many children of Latino immigrants who work in the state's farms and chicken processing plants are the first in their families to be eligible to vote. They were also knocking on doors to garner support for the Democrats, as well as register new voters, Unzueta said.

In Georgia, "there's been a huge mobilization in that state of the African-American vote with the efforts of Stacey Abrams and the death of John Lewis," Rouse said, "but they have not just focused on the African American vote. They've also mobilized the Latino vote that is increasing in the South."

This takes on added significance ahead of the highly anticipated runoff races in Georgia, which will determine which party controls the U.S. Senate. Latinos "will continue to be part of the story of Georgia being a competitive battleground state," Rouse said. "The Southern states have, over the last 10 years, seen a significant increase in their Latino population."

Mijente's Unzeta said her organization is currently hosting canvassing events in the weekends ahead of Georgia's runoff election.

While grassroots organizations effectively energized new Latino voters in battleground states, Rouse said the key is continued outreach.

"Every group that you can mobilize to vote is going to make a difference," she added.

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