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Can a growing Latino voting block change the outcome of Idaho elections?

A bilingual sign stands outside a polling center at a public library ahead of local elections on April 28 in Austin, Texas.
John Moore
/
Getty Images
A bilingual sign stands outside a polling center at a public library ahead of local elections on April 28 in Austin, Texas.

Hispanic voters are the fastest-growing voting block in the country but have the lowest turnout in the U.S. This election cycle, organizations focusing their efforts on Latino Voters are hoping to see more folks show up at the ballot box.

The ACLU of Idaho has been running ads in Spanish on Ben “El Chupacabras” Reed’s radio show broadcasting out of Jerome called ‘La Perrona.’ They encourage voters to call a hotline if they are having trouble exercising their right to vote or have any questions about the election.

Reed said historically the Latino community has felt excluded from the voting process.

“They think, well is my vote really going to matter?” he said. “I wouldn't really call that apathy. But I think it's, you know, frustration more than anything.”

The 2018 midterm elections saw a sharp increase nationally in Latinos and Latinas showing up at the polls. A report from the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs and the latest Census show more than 70% of Latinos in Idaho are U.S. citizens old enough to vote. That’s more than 100,000 potential Latino voters or eight percent of the population.

A new generation of voters

The American children of migrants are now coming of age, Reed said.

“While their parents may have some difficulties due to language, culture or, you know, other documents that might be a barrier,” he said, “the younger generation of Latinxs is now getting ready and going to go to the polls.”

“I think it's going to make a huge sea change in the way things are done in Idaho,” Reed added.

A Pew Research Center study found that eight of ten Latinos believe their vote can change the outcome of elections.

Ruby Mendez, campaign strategist for the ACLU of Idaho hopes to see this shift at the ballot box next week.

“Do not underestimate the Latino vote,” she said, “because they are definitely areas that I see where there's a large Latinx population that has the power to make changes.”

As a second generation American, Mendez did not grow up seeing her parents vote. She didn’t consider her right to participate in the electoral process until she attended a talk at her college by the non-profit Vote Idaho.

“I was able to then educate my dad, who has been a yearlong citizen, to register to vote,” she said. “And for the very first time when I was 18, he voted in his 20 plus years being a citizen.”

Voters without representation

Mendez said one challenge is few candidates do outreach within the Latino population and there is little representation amongst Idaho politicians.

According to the National Conference of State Legislature, as of 2020, only one percent of Idaho representatives were Hispanic and 94% were white. Those numbers do not reflect the state’s fast changing demographics.

Latinos make up about 13% of Idaho's population, but they account for 24% of the state’s population growth over the last decade. Canyon County’s population is almost 25% Latino. Some small towns even have a majority of Latino residents, like Wilder in Western Idaho with 66% identified as Hispanic.

It’s hard for the community to identify with a particular party, Mendez said, as the Latino population is not a monolith.

“There are definitely some issues that resonate on both sides,” she said, “but we are definitely a value-based community.”

And those values don’t tidily fit within one side or the other.

Big issues include access to education and immigration - especially for mixed status families whose members might include undocumented folks and US citizens. But the number one concern for registered Hispanic voters is, according to the Pew Research Center, economic issues.

Working to remove barriers

Organizations like Contamos, Poder, and the ACLU, have focused efforts on educating Latinos on their right to vote by offering bilingual resources. In some counties, officials are also providing interpretation services, a requirement of the Federal Voting Rights Act.

“We all have our fair share of stories of going to the polls for the very first time and feeling a bit out of place because we're the only person of color,” Mendez said.

Reed said he’d never forget when his wife, who was born in Mexico, first voted. It was 2016 and the first year she was eligible to cast a ballot as a U.S. citizen. He walked into the voting booth with her and they started speaking Spanish. He said one of the poll workers immediately started talking to another employee, questioning whether his wife was a US citizen.

“I'm sorry, but that's discrimination,” he said. “How many times does that occur? In other places? Voter suppression is real.”

Reed said there is still a long way to go, but he’s hopeful, especially when thinking about his four-year-old, Benjamín Rafael.

“Give us 20 years, then things are going to be changed,” he said. “I mean, my son is the face of what this state is going to be in 20 years, not mine, but my son's face. And I think that's an awesome thing.”

Find reporter Julie Luchetta on Twitter @JulieLuchetta.

As the Canyon County reporter, I cover the Latina/o/x communities and agricultural hub of the Treasure Valley. I’m super invested in local journalism and social equity, and very grateful to be working in Idaho.