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.

"The Hispanic vote is a potential vote. It keeps growing, and it's just the tip of the iceberg," Gutierrez says. "You can't qualify the undocumented, and you can't accelerate the 17-year-olds to be 18. It's a slow progression. There's a tsunami coming, but it's coming in waves, not one big tidal wave."

Still, there are high numbers of Hispanics who are registered to vote but haven't turned out in past elections. Those involved in getting out the vote hope their efforts made the difference last week. Arnulfo de la Cruz, political director of the state's Service Employees International Union, says that of 96,000 households with registered Latino voters in Dallas County, 37,000 were listed as never having voted.

"There's clearly a huge chunk of registered Latino voters that are not participating," he says.

Gutierrez says waking the "sleeping giant" has been a slow process because leaders have so far failed to lay out a cohesive plan for Latino political power. (There were no Latinos at the top of the ticket in Dallas County, for example).

"No one is out there energizing them. The reason they came out was, 'They hate me; I'm going to show 'em,'" Gutierrez says. "Somebody's got to be saying, 'We're going to fill the slate for each top position in 2008,' 'Paint the White House brown in 2012.' Whoever gets out there and coins a phrase in 10 words or less, that's going to be the attention-grabber."

Sister Consuelo Tovar, a Daughters of Charity nun and community organizer, bristles at expectations that in a matter of months, thousands of Hispanic nonvoters would suddenly be educated, active and ready for the polls.

"The goal is to increase the role of the common person in the community and improve the quality of life," she says. "We're working to develop leadership, and that takes time. Voting is the last part of the process." Tovar works with Dallas Area Interfaith, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that does grassroots organizing through churches and schools. She coordinates discussion groups about education, jobs and housing, as well as educational civic forums on a variety of issues, including immigration.

"If there's not a process like that, the person who comes to vote thinks, 'Who do I vote for?'" Tovar says.

She and others point to the growing number of Latinos who have recently become active in their communities and in politics, as well as rising numbers of citizenship applications, as evidence of a long-term movement. According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the number of citizenship applications filed between May and September of this year was up roughly 26 percent from the same period in 2005, from 6,547 to 8,220 in Dallas.

"People who have lived here for years as legal residents are finally taking the next step to become citizens," says Juan Ayala, president of the Dallas Latino Democrats. That, coupled with what he describes as "a huge increase in activists reaching out to get Latinos out to vote, is going to pay off in the long run."

The night before Election Day, members of Dallas Area Interfaith operated one last phone bank out of the office of attorney and businesswoman Adelfa Callejo. Half a dozen people sat at desks and worked the phones, calling registered Latino voters and urging them to go to the polls. Several were volunteering during an election for the first time.

Engracia Virgen found out about the outreach efforts through her church in Irving. She'd been keeping track of proposals that would criminalize immigrants and decided to help out. "I don't think it's just. I know good, hardworking families, and they have a right to live and live well, like anyone else," she says.

Omar Jimenez, a 16-year-old student at Molina High School in Oak Cliff, was making calls in another room. Though he couldn't yet vote himself, he spoke passionately about the importance of getting Hispanics to the polls.

"Thousands of people walked downtown, and none of that matters if people don't vote. We have a voice, we have a right to be heard, and we should be heard. Now we have to prove we care."

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