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Latinx community focuses on voting rights for National Hispanic Heritage Month

It is National Hispanic Heritage Month and cultural, community and policy organizations across the country are engaged in an annual celebration of the histories of the people of Latin America – and of the innumerable ways their vibrant cultures have enriched life in the U.S. But with the 2024 presidential election just over a year away, Latinx voting rights organizations are looking forward, not back.

They have good reason to be focused ahead. The election will be the first for the nation’s highest office in which people of Latin American heritage will make up the largest group of eligible voters after white Americans. Still, politicians and policymakers have for the most part failed to meet that voting bloc with proposals and policies that speak to its diversity and sophistication. Those blinders, combined with voter suppression efforts that deeply impact Latinx communities growing throughout the country, and with particular ferocity across the Deep South, the challenge is to make those voices count.

Across the Deep South, where the Southern Poverty Law Center has been fighting voter suppression for more than five decades, the SPLC is partnering with Latinx voting rights groups, as it has for several election cycles, to help fund their efforts. Leading those efforts is the Vote Your Voice initiative, a partnership between the SPLC and the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta to increase voter registration, participation and civic engagement among communities of color in the Deep South. The SPLC has pledged $100 million to support Vote Your Voice through 2032.

The groups are racing to meet the challenges. They are standing up new efforts to counter shadowy disinformation spread on social media and elsewhere that seems designed to discourage Latinx voters. They are conducting surveys of the Latinx electorate to better learn what policies and initiatives most energize them. They are working to distribute information on voting in Spanish in the many jurisdictions that do not. They are going door to door to turn out the vote in local elections set for this November to encourage Latinx people of all ages to make voting a habit, and they are increasingly meeting voters where they are through innovative community efforts.

“This is both a time of tremendous opportunity and of tremendous danger for American democracy,” said Arturo Vargas, chief executive officer of the NALEO Educational Fund, a 45-year-old national nonprofit organization that promotes the full participation of Latinx people in civic life. “This will be the first presidential election with Latinos being the second-largest segment of the potential electorate. At the same time, local jurisdictions have been putting in place restrictions that make the voting process itself more difficult. … So, I think there is a real challenge for organizations such as ours and the whole Latino community to translate those numbers into a much more powerful voice at the ballot box.”

Growing political influence

The potential impact of the Latinx vote is immense. Of the 60 million people in the U.S. who identify as Hispanic or Latino, more than 34.5 million will be eligible to vote in 2024, up 4.7 million – 16% – since 2018, according to the Pew Research Center, the nonpartisan American think tank based in Washington, D.C., that provides information on social issues, public opinion, and demographic trends shaping the U.S. and the world. Latinos were projected to account for 14.3% of all eligible voters in November 2022, a new high. This share has steadily increased over the past two decades and is up from 12.8% in 2018. In 2000, by comparison, Hispanics made up just 7.4% of U.S. eligible voters.

In Georgia, the nearly 1 million Latinx people in the state account for about 10% of the state’s population. Among eligible voters, more than 400,000 are of Central American, Mexican, South American, Caribbean and Spanish heritage, according to GALEO, a nonpartisan organization in Norcross, Georgia, focused on bolstering Latinx civic participation.

And in Florida, eligible Hispanic voters total more than 3.4 million people, 21% of eligible voters in the state.

Going hand in hand with that growth is a wave of voting restrictions and other harmful laws jeopardizing Latino political power. Lawmakers are also diluting the power of Latino voters through extreme gerrymandering.

Such restrictions have a long history. Whites-only primaries, designed to suppress the Black vote in Southern states, were implemented in Texas in 1923 to bar Latinx people from participating in primary elections. For more than 60 years, a 1909 Arizona law required voters to pass an English literacy test to register to vote. Elsewhere, intimidation, harassment, proof-of-citizenship requirements and other efforts to suppress the Latinx vote have persisted in some jurisdictions.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibits discrimination in voting access against racial and ethnic minorities. It was amended in 1975 to protect Spanish-speaking populations and other language minorities. Until 2013, it also required states and localities with a history of racial discrimination in voting to obtain federal approval for changes to voting laws. But that year, the Supreme Court gutted that federal power in Shelby County v. Holder. And last year, the court further weakened the Voting Rights Act when it upheld two discriminatory Arizona voting policies – which disproportionately burden Latinx people – in Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee.

Voter suppression

Since those decisions, states have passed hundreds of restrictive voting laws that have closed polling places, shortened early voting periods and established aggressive purges of voter rolls. Some of the most restrictive measures have been passed in states with growing Latinx populations, including Florida, Georgia, Arizona and Texas.

In Georgia, for example, only Gwinnett County is required by the Voting Rights Act to provide information to voters in English and Spanish. Some other jurisdictions do so voluntarily, but many do not. GALEO is fighting that in the courts, but it is also engaged in its own outreach to try to provide that sort of information to Latinx voters.

“Georgia is a hostile state towards voting rights, and we have been involved in advocating for greater access to voting, rather than more restrictive access,” said Jerry Gonzalez, founder and chief executive officer of GALEO. “Language access is a big issue in Georgia, and everything that we do for our outreach is concentrated on ensuring that voters have access to the information, whether it’s in English or Spanish, to ensure that they can exercise the right to vote.”

Another top priority of GALEO, along with other Latinx organizations, has been to collect better data on the motivations, concerns and desires of the voters who compose the community.

Currently GALEO, along with other partners, is in the midst of the most substantive effort to survey the Latinx community in the state in two decades. Funded in part by Vote Your Voice, the effort, Puente Para la Gente – in English, Bridge to the People – the survey is being shepherded by BSP Research, a public opinion polling organization.

The survey is being designed “to make sure that we can get a true sampling of the Latino community, that they can say, this is what Latinos want and it is proportionate to the Latino experience that we have here in Georgia,” Gonzalez said. “The results and the polling will help us understand what Latinos believe and perceive the parties mean to them and how they identify on the ideological spectrum.”

In Florida the NALEO Educational Fund is preparing for the 2024 election cycle with a new digital outreach campaign to reach more than 30,000 Latinx households, with a focus on Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties, Vargas said.

At the national level, it has launched Defiende la Verdad – Defend the Truth – an initiative to enlist social media influencers, community leaders and others to counter disinformation harmful to voter participation. Launched last year, the effort seeks to reach voters confused by texts and tweets that spread falsehoods about voting, such as that a driver’s license is required to vote or you can’t take a child with you into the voting booth when you cast your ballot.

“That stuff is just promulgated on social media. And there is a real danger of this kind of myth and disinformation,” Vargas said. “We want to make sure that Latino voters are getting accurate information about the voting process and that we’re able to identify any efforts out there to try to confuse voters about the voting process.”

Such efforts to confuse, Vargas said, “along with the increasing polarization of the nation, that itself, I think, serves to tell people, ‘This isn’t worth it.’ And that is all the more reason why we have to tell people, ‘Yes, it is worth it to vote. There is all the more reason why you need to get more of a voice.’”

Photo at top: In Florida, the NALEO Educational Fund is preparing for the 2024 presidential election with a digital voter outreach campaign focused on Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties. (Courtesy of NALEO)