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Latino voters aren't apathetic, Sanders' Nevada win shows. Stop blaming them for low turnout.

Political participation is a two-way street, and the current system alienates Latinos.
Image: Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks to supporters at a campaign rally in Los Angeles on Nov. 16, 2019.
Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks to Latino supporters at a campaign rally in Los Angeles on Nov. 16.Frederic J. Brown / AFP via Getty Images file

For decades, pundits have referred to the rapidly growing Latino population as a sleeping giant that has overpromised and underperformed when it comes to electoral benefits for Democrats.

In 2016, after a year of rhetorical attacks by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump against Latinos and immigrants, the conventional wisdom was that Latinos would respond with record turnout. Trump instead won a shocking victory, leading one CNN analysis to conclude that “Latino and younger voters failed to show up at the polls in sufficient numbers” to give Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton the White House.

If Latinos instead have reason to think the system can work for them, they will show up on Election Day.

Not everyone was surprised. Ahead of the vote, in a prescient discussion about Latino voters, former Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, quickly dismissed the idea that Latinos could propel Clinton to victory in her state. “Nah,” she said, “They don’t get out and vote.”

But these generalizations about Latinos overlook a central factor in their voting behavior, and the results in the Democratic caucuses in Nevada on Saturday not only demonstrate the importance of this factor, but the cost to campaigns that don’t adequately reckon with it: Political participation is a two-way street. The current political system alienates Latinos; we need to stop portraying them as apathetic and blaming them for not showing up to vote, but rather find ways to diminish that sense of alienation and facilitate their participation.

Part of Bernie Sanders’ sweeping win among Latinos on Saturday — he took 33 percent of the Latino vote, according to our estimates — came because he understood the many ways that the system turns off Latinos, and that if Latinos instead have reason to think the system can work for them, they will show up on Election Day. As such, he never stopped building infrastructure within the Latino community after his first attempt at the presidency in 2016.

Latino alienation has several causes — which is reflected in the fact that turnout rates for Hispanics have historically hovered below 50 percent, and in 2016 was the lowest turnout among different racial groups, at 47.6 percent. By contrast, more than 65 percent of eligible white voters cast ballots that year, according to Pew Research.

The first systematic injustice is active voter suppression, including strict registration laws that disportionately disenfranchise Latino voters. In addition, a steady beat of voter intimidation has targeted Latinos, and the Republican myth of rampant voter fraud by undocumented immigrants by implication stigmatizes the Latino community.

The second way Latinos are disadvantaged is demographics. Latinos are younger and poorer than whites, making them a difficult group to reach given the incentive structure of American politics, which is driven by fundraising. Younger people as a whole are less likely to vote and have less access to money, so they do not have the same access to political power, while less outreach is traditionally done to provide them entry.

Third is a lack of representation. Academics have long noted the mobilizing impact that the presence of Latino candidates can have on turnout. When candidates share voters’ experiences, potential supporters are more likely to connect with them and act on that tie. Research shows that Latinos make up just 1 percent of all local and federal elected officials, even though they are more than 18 percent of the national population.

To counter these dynamics, Sanders took active steps: He went after activists on the ground to work for his campaign, and hired a Latina press secretary, Belén Sisa, who has long been a mainstay of immigrant politics. And he mobilized casino workers and courted the Culinary Workers Union, which is 54 percent Latino.

Yet all the credit shouldn’t go to Sanders. He entered one of the states that already has a good blueprint for Latino activism and the infrastructure needed to turn out voters. In particular, Sanders had the advantage in Nevada of a mature labor movement, which has historically been a powerful means for Latinos to engage politically in the Southwest dating to Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers movement of the 1960s and ’70s. And the continuing integration of a growing number of Latinos into unions more recently has changed how they approach politics, including galvanizing members over workplace issues that disproportionately affect women.

We are already seeing signs that Democrats are beginning to understand the key to turnout. In 2018, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee invested heavily in battleground districts where Latinos could tip the scales. We saw a particular payoff in Virginia just after Trump’s election, where several Latinas unseated GOP incumbents in the House of Delegates as Republicans were rejected when trying to use Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric.

And 2018 not only brought this country one of the most diverse groups of representatives it has ever seen, but voter turnout among Latinos shook the foundation of what we thought we knew about low midterm election voting. The number of Latino midterm voters nearly doubled from 2014 to 2018.

This trend will continue in 2020 if Democrats can build on the existing networks of activists and labor unions, cultivate talent to run for office, and fight tooth and nail against election laws designed to reduce voter participation. Most important, Latino participation must be rewarded. Folding up tents after the election and forgetting about Latino representation once the primary is over are sure ways of losing the attention and energy of Latino voters during the general election.

Time after time we have seen that Latino voters are not apathetic. The system is.