Latinos are the United States’ largest minority group, but when it comes to voter participation, the group has one of the lowest turnout rates. In recent years, the growing number of politically-engaged Millennial Latinos has begun to shift that trend, making their role in U.S. politics increasingly important.
While the median age of white voters is 39 years old, the median age of Latino voters is 22, said Lydia Camarillo, vice president of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, at a panel discussion Saturday about Latino voting issues, organized by the San Antonio Association of Hispanic Journalists. Additionally, the number of registered Latino voters continues to increase each election cycle, according to the organization’s data.
However, for both Democratic, Republican, and third-party candidates, securing the Millennial Latino vote, and the Latino vote in general, is no clear-cut task, every panelist agreed. The Millennial Latino population in itself is as diverse politically and socially as it is culturally.
“The tendency is to think that the (Millennial Latino) population is homogenous, that everyone is at the same level of interest” in the same things, said panelist Gilberto Hinojosa, a professor at the University of the Incarnate Word who has studied the social, economic, and cultural dynamics of the formation of Mexican-American communities. “There might not be any single issue that attracts this group.”
For one, Millennials have shown more of an interest in measuring a candidate based on the deliverables they’ve been able to meet, State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-123) said.
“Electing the right person is half of their interest. The other half is what that person does with that vote,” he said. “It’s easier to get them to vote once and more challenging to get them to vote again; they want to see what happens with that vote.”
Similarly, the younger Latino population isn’t as driven by the same social issues as the older generations are, said panelist and former U.S. Rep. Pete Gallego, who is running again to represent the 23rd Congressional District.
While much of the discussion and debates during this year’s presidential election have been focused on health care, Camarillo said, Latino Millennials show more interest in topics such as the environment, education, and the legalization of marijuana, which haven’t gotten nearly as much attention from either presidential candidate thus far.
Galvanizing young Latino voters to support their causes will require some “restructuring” of the Democratic and Republican parties to make room for topics of interest among that group, said panelist Congressman Henry Cuellar (D-TX).
“The topics need to change,” Gallego agreed. “(As politicians) you’re going to have to tailor your argument now to this new audience.”
Latino Millennials tend to disapprove of the pronounced bipartisanship that governs U.S. politics today. While historically Latinos have leaned more toward Democratic policies, younger Latinos today are more likely to identify themselves as independent, Cuellar said. That’s why it has become more important for the Democratic and Republican parties to adapt to the changing and growing voter pool of Latinos. For the Republican Party of Bexar County, that means expanding its reach from the Northside of San Antonio further south and beyond, said panelist Robert Stovall, Republican Party of Bexar County chairman.
“San Antonio is so diverse,” Stovall said. “We have to make sure we get our message out there all over the county.”
In the 1970s, many Mexican-Americans involved in the civil rights movement turned to La Raza Unida Party, a third-party group that was created from a growing dissatisfaction with the Democratic Party – which Latinos typically supported – at the time. The party tackled local and national issues and got more Latinos into leadership positions on school boards, in City Council, and other areas. Other nonpartisan organizations such as COPS/Metro also worked to address the more localized concerns of the Latino community, most notably regarding income equality, and have largely diminished the need for a third-party to take on those issues.
Today, third-party candidates have begun to appeal to Latino Millennials more and more because of their focus on topics that deviate from the status quo, but there likelihood of them becoming viable options for this group in the elections are slim to none, more than one panelist said.
Every month, 66,000 U.S. Latinos turn 18 and become eligible to vote and a record-breaking two million Latinos are expected to vote in the November election, Camarillo said. Still, systemic barriers along with other challenges often keep Latinos from actually casting their votes. Engaging the Latino population early on, Camarillo added, and increasing awareness of voting rights can help ensure the Latino voice is heard at the polls.
“Your vote is your ticket to firing or hiring your elected officials,” she said. “It’s your ticket to accountability.”
A few key voting reminders:
- The last day to register to vote in the November elections is Tuesday, Oct. 11. To see if you’re already registered to vote or to download the registration form, click here.
- Parents can register their children to vote and vice versa.
- School districts have the responsibility to register voters twice a year. To set up a voter registration drive, contact the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project.
Top image: Elected officials and community leaders gather to discuss Latino voter turnout. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.