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Northwest's Eligible Young Latino Voters Energized, But Will They Be Counted?

Anna King
Northwest News Network

This week we are exploring why Latinos have so little clout in Northwest politics, even though they’re the region’s largest minority group. One reason: Latinos are a younger demographic.

And younger people -- no matter what their ethnicity -- are much less likely to vote than older people. But one issue that’s energized many young Latinos is the DREAM Act. It would create a path to citizenship for children of undocumented immigrants. At a "Rock the Vote" event in downtown Richland, Washington, an energetic band in tight-fitting jeans plays short sets between political stump speeches.

Twenty-one-year-old Josh Alano really came here to see his friends’ band, but politely listened to the speeches. 

Credit Anna King
Anna King
Josh Alano, 21, came to the Rock the Vote event in Richland to hear his friends’ band, but he listened politely to political speeches while there too.

“I feel like we all have an opinion, and just about politics in general but actually, I myself should really be more informed," he says with a laugh.

Another young woman helped to host the event as part of a young professionals’ group. Twenty-five-year-old Altagracia Herrera says more Latinos need to stand up and represent their community in public office.

“Yeah, we’re the minority," she says. "But our parents are here, we’re born here, we’re raised here so we’re Americans and we need to contribute to the country.”

But young Latinos don’t vote in high numbers for the same reasons other young Americans don’t: Issues like social security, Medicare and property tax seem too far away and irrelevant.

Matt Barreto is a political scientist at the University of Washington. He also runs an independent polling firm that specializes in Latino voters. He says if you just count U.S.-born children, there are about 60,000 Latinos turning 18 every month across the nation.

“The question is whether or not we’re poised to see any really large bumps or dramatic increases of the Latino population in terms of voters," Barreto says. "And what that would take is number one a big increase in voter registration and number two on voter turnout rates."

Barreto says young Latinos are seeing some tangible results of politics in their own lives -- especially on the issue of immigration. There’s President Obama’s order to stop deporting young people brought into the country illegally by their parents. But many Latinos are still skeptical of the administration.

“I think over the last three or four years that Obama’s been in office that you’ve seen record numbers of deportations of immigrants in the Latino community, including many children, many young people who were raised here,” Barreto says.

Whether they support President Obama or not, personal issues like these are driving young people to get more involved. But Northwest Latinos are diverse, and just like other Americans, they have lots of different political opinions.

Take 21-year-old Diego Trejo. I caught up with him at the Tri-Cities campaign office for Republican candidate for Washington governor, Rob McKenna.

Credit Anna King / Northwest News Network
Northwest News Network
Diego Trejo, 21, is working on Rob McKenna’s Tri-Cities-area campaign for Washington governor. Trejo is unusual both in that he’s a young Latino Republican, and that he is involved in politics.

“My passion for politics started back in elementary school believe it or not. Back in third or fourth grade, I was following the Bush/Gore 2000 election. I was a big Bush fan. And ever since I’ve been volunteering on campaigns.”

Trejo won’t say how he feels about the DREAM Act, but he thinks both parties have failed to fix the country’s immigration policies.

Trejo says he’s a Republican partly because his parents own a Yakima Valley business that’s struggling. He’s a fan of fiscal responsibility and lower taxes. He says that’s why he likes McKenna.

“He’s a very down-to-earth person," Trejo says. "When you look at him and talk with him he doesn’t sound like a politician. He sounds like your neighbor, your friend.”

But young Latinos who are staunch Republicans like Trejo, are a bit rare. Polling shows most Latinos are more-closely aligned with Democrats.

“I don’t think I’ve ever met an actual Republican Latino,” says 28-year-old Rosalinda Mendoza from Tieton, Washington. “The only Latinos I know, they don’t necessarily affiliate with a particular party, they just have opinions or they are strong Democrats.”

Growing up Mendoza learned not to trust any politicians. Even as late as this year, she didn’t want to label herself as a Democrat.

But Mendoza says the DREAM Act really forced her to take sides. It would have a huge impact on a lot of the people she grew up with. And so she went so deep into political organizing that she ended up a delegate at the Democratic National Convention.

“I said OK I got to do everything I can to make sure that we elect someone that is going to advocate for my community here,” Mendoza says.

Pollster Matt Barreto says this November he doesn’t expect to see a huge surge of young Latino voters. But he says years from now, this group’s sheer numbers will make it a big force in Northwest politics.

On the Web:

Map: Northwest Latino Elected Official Database by State - Click on each state to see its Latino population in 2011 along with estimates of Hispanic elected officials. The database counted Hispanic surnames among members of Congress, state officials, county commissioners, city councilors, mayor and school board members. Source: Northwest News Network.

Map: Northwest Latino Elected Official Database By County - Click on each county to see its Latino population in 2011 along with estimates of Hispanic elected officials. Darker colors indicate a larger share of population. The database counted Hispanic surnames among county commissioners, city councilors, mayor and school board members. Source: Northwest News Network.

Copyright 2012 Northwest Public Radio

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