Slow Tide Rising

Did the Latino vote push Democrats over the top?

In the days before this month's election, the Dallas County Democratic Party distributed cards with photographs of the county's five Hispanic judicial candidates and slogans proclaiming, "Yesterday we marched, today we vote!" The Tejano Democrats mailed election reminders to 30,000 Latino households. These were the last efforts of a get-out-the-vote campaign that had volunteers making phone calls, knocking on doors, organizing meetings and driving busloads of people to early voting locations in heavily Hispanic neighborhoods.

So...drum roll...did it work? Did the ethnic group referred to as "the sleeping giant" or "the rising iceberg" turn out?

Maybe.

Engracia Virgen volunteered at a "get out the vote" phone bank the night before Election Day. This was her first time volunteering during an election.
Engracia Virgen volunteered at a "get out the vote" phone bank the night before Election Day. This was her first time volunteering during an election.

Early voting numbers and interviews with poll workers, community leaders and academics suggest that more Hispanics cast ballots in this election, though likely not in the huge numbers predicted after last spring's immigration demonstrations. Poll workers in heavily Hispanic precincts say they noticed more Latinos casting ballots, especially people in their late teens and early 20s, and noted a high number seemed to be voting straight-ticket Democrat. Rising numbers of Hispanic activists and volunteers, along with a surge in citizenship applications, point to long-term political influence, and in the short term, observers believe Latino voters played a major role in Dallas County's Democratic sweep.

"The margin of victory was due to the Hispanic vote," says Domingo Garcia, national civil rights chairman for the League of United Latin American Citizens and former state representative. "That was the tipping factor in the Democrats taking over Dallas County."

Mike Walz, executive director of the Dallas County Republican Party, says there's no evidence for that. "The reason Democrats won was because Republicans didn't turn out to vote," he says, not because more Hispanics turned out or voted Democrat.

Yet initial reports show Latino turnout was up about 9 percent in early voting, with 9,353 people with Hispanic surnames casting ballots this year compared with 8,584 in 2002, says Ed Valentine, who provides political consultants with voting data.

State Representative Roberto Alonzo, whose district is 80 percent Latino, says immigration was the main issue on voters' minds. "I think the Republicans helped Hispanics vote straight-ticket," he claims. "As I worked my calls and when I was at the boxes, the people wanted to vote Democrat."

Overall turnout countywide was down 3 percent from the last midterm election, from 37 percent in 2002 to 34 this year, but the number of straight-ticket Republican voters dipped from 49 to 47 percent while straight-ticket Democrats rose from 50 to 53 percent.

Wilma Avalos worked as an election judge at Grauwyler Recreation Center in the Love Field West neighborhood's Precinct 4443, where the population is 87 percent Hispanic.

"The Hispanics were really coming in to vote," says Avalos, who has worked the precinct for six years. Many of the voters she helped may not have known much about the candidates, but they knew exactly which party they wanted to win. "The ones that came in would ask how do they vote for the president, and the next thing was, 'How do I vote straight Democrat?'"

Jose Angel Gutierrez, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, says he noticed the same thing while working as a clerk in Cockrell Hill.

"Hispanics and blacks—a lot of them voted straight ticket," he says. "They'd vote and come right out. You saw others taking forever."

While Marisela Vargas was directing people to voting booths and translating for Spanish speakers at the polls at Cowart Elementary School, she noticed many young Latinos whom she recognized as high school students or recent graduates. A group from Mountain View College even left classes early to bring parents and relatives in to vote.

"The young people were really excited. They came from Sunset, Kimball and Molina [high schools]," she says. "We had 200 high school students show up and vote."

Vargas, who's lived in the heavily Latino area for 35 years, had walked door-to-door in her neighborhood encouraging people to vote. On the afternoon of Election Day, as she surveyed the line of some 50 people snaking around the inside of the building, she felt that her efforts had actually paid off, especially when she noticed an immigrant family she knew whose 18-year-old son was voting with his father for the first time.

There was a sense of urgency at the polls that she hadn't noticed in past elections, Vargas says. She overheard one young man say to a friend in Spanish, "Bring your sister, hermano. Those of us who can vote have to vote for the people who can't."

After the House of Representatives passed a bill that would make felons of illegal immigrants and those that provide them services, prompting hundreds of thousands of marchers to pour into the streets downtown, the numbers of newly registered Latino voters fell short of expectations. In Dallas County, people with Hispanic surnames made up 17 percent of newly registered voters between January and October of this year, the same portion as during that period in 2005, according to Bruce Sherbet, elections director. Yet that's a 2 percentage point increase over 2002.

The most common explanation for the slower-than-expected mobilization is that large numbers of Hispanics moved by the immigration debate cannot vote; many are students under 18, immigrants without documents or legal residents.

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