After a massive voter turnout in the Nov. 3 election, politicians and policy makers are just starting to pay attention to the power that Latinxs have in the country. Our community has a history of being ignored, criminalized and denied basic human and civil rights, but we showed up collectively and played a definitive role in deciding the outcome of this election. And yet, even though 70 percent of the Latinx population voted for Biden, media outlets continue to focus on the voters who cast their ballots for Trump.
Our Power in Numbers
Latinx voters made history and delivered one of the key pieces of the coalition that backed the Biden candidacy in order to end Trump’s presidency. More than 2.5 as many Latinx voters cast their ballots early this year as did in the 2016 election. For example, in key precincts in Arizona, Latinx voter turnout rose by 20 percent compared to the past election, with nearly 73 percent choosing Biden. Similarly, in Georgia, at least 20,000 more Latinx voters cast their ballots early than the total numbers of Latinxs who voted in 2016, with exit polls showing a 69 percent favorability toward Joe Biden.
Our choice is resounding. Amid overall record-breaking turnout in this election, Latinxs in particular shattered previous records with an estimate of 20.6 million (a 65 percent increase over the 2016 election). This represents two-thirds of Latinxs who are eligible to vote. Across the country, Latinx voters were an undeniably decisive bloc and overwhelmingly united against Trump supporting Joe Biden by a margin of more than 30 points.
The Importance of Sustained Organizing
It’s clear that Latinx voters will play an ever-greater role in any election or nationwide movement moving forward. A few years from now, Latinxs will represent 20 percent of the population of the country. So it is critical not to take for granted that the vast majority will continue voting for the Democratic Party, or that states like Arizona and Georgia will continue to be blue states.
Political campaigns still haven’t learned how to engage our communities. The Biden campaign failed on multiple fronts, potentially costing him the state of Florida. The campaign treated Latinx voters as a monolith, connected with grassroots groups too late, and simply gave up on low-propensity voters. The issues that matter to a Cuban person in Florida aren’t the same as the ones under consideration by a Mexican immigrant in Arizona. Candidates should stop creating stereotypical marketing campaigns for Latinxs and start trying to understand and appreciate our differences between regions, needs and expectations from the Democratic political agenda. Every politician now knows Latinx voters cannot be an afterthought, so they should be taking lessons from community organizations from Day 1.
What grassroots movements have built in Arizona can provide a model for how to effectively mobilize Latinx voters for the long haul. It took years of organizing, educating Latinxs on the electoral process, empowering them to make their voices heard, and showing them that our collective power can bring down walls.
In 2016, Mijente and a coalition of local organizations mobilized the community to end Joe Arpaio’s political career, building on the 20 years of grassroots organizing that had already eroded his power. Communities then continued their journey until in 2018 we flipped an Arizona U.S. Senate seat for the first time in 30 years. Today, while we celebrate how progressive organizing delivered a presidential win for Biden in Arizona, we are also getting ready for the next phase of organizing to ensure our best interests don’t fall through the cracks of the Democratic political agenda. The Latinx progressive movement has just reached scale, so our time is now.
It’s essential that progressive political campaigns work hand-in-hand with groups that know their community, and they must do so early in the game. Effective organizing does not only take place weeks or months before an election. Engagement has to be sustained and long-term, so we’re in our communities building power all year long. Through our sustained and strategic organizing, we learned how much support existed for raising revenue to fund public education, an issue which made its way to the ballot in Arizona this year and won with overwhelming support. Individuals who report an income higher than $250,000 will be subject to a 3.5 percent increase in taxes to fund public schools in the state. One of our partner groups in Georgia, GLAHR Action Network, has a history of organizing throughout the state, with its nonpartisan partners doing sustained canvassing in immigrant communities to advise people about their civil and human rights.
A Focus on First-Time Voters
All too often, campaigns don’t think it’s worth investing in outreach to voters who haven’t voted before or who vote rarely, thinking it’s not worth the time or effort. At Mijente, we couldn’t disagree more. Many Latinx voters don’t participate in the electoral process not because they don’t care or don’t want to vote, but because they haven’t been engaged. They don’t believe their vote will make a difference — mainly because candidates haven’t proved why it would. Some of the answers we got when approaching Latinx voters this year ranged from “voting is intimidating,” to “I don’t know where to start,” to “I can’t find material in Spanish.”
The latter point is crucial. While the overall percentage of Latinxs who report to speak English “very well” has increased in recent years, 24 percent of adults between 18 and 33 are not proficient in the language. During Mijente’s recent Fuera Trump campaign, we spent a significant portion of our time supporting Spanish speakers and giving them a way to make their voice heard.
Another example of a group we organized with was older Latina voters, who generally turn out at much lower rates than other women — and yet, compared to their male counterparts, consistently expressed worse views of Trump. We built a Latina-led team in North Carolina that registered thousands of first-time Democratic Latina voters. We also encouraged them to realize their potential as influential stakeholders within their Latinx families. There’s evidence that higher Latina turnout this year made the difference in key states such as Wisconsin and Michigan.
Campaign leaders can’t continue to avoid the hard work of reaching out to low-propensity voters. They have a responsibility to reach out to those who have been left out and show them why their votes matter.
Latinx Voters Are Not a Monolith
Finally, politicians and policy makers have to stop treating Latinx voters as a monolith. The issues that matter to many Cubans are not the same as those that matter to many Puerto Ricans, and young Latinx voters vote differently from their parents and grandparents. There is a wide range of differences between specific Latinx populations, from their immigration experiences to political baggage, place of residency, class and religion. Our community has 32 million Latinx eligible voters and growing, and while there was consensus by a majority of 70 percent to end Trump’s presidency, it might not always be so easy to find the same alignment.
2020 has taught us that the old, monolithic approach to engaging Latinx voters is in need of serious revision. 2020 has also demonstrated to Latinxs the true electoral power we hold, so we are now a force that is alive and will make demands whenever treated poorly or undermined.
Grassroots organizations have shown that they know what it takes to win. It is time for policy makers to start listening. And it is time to deliver.