In Nebraska, Latinos make up 9 percent of the state’s population and that share is increasing. But among voters, Latinos have one of the lowest turnout rates, especially during midterm elections like the one this year.
Dayana Lopez is the youth coordinator at the Heartland Workers Center in South Omaha. She’s leading a meeting to launch a project called I Vote For My Family. “It’s an initiative to get young people to register and actually go out and vote,” Lopez said.
Nebraska By the Numbers (Data from US Census Bureau)
- 81.4% are non-Hispanic White
- 4.8% are non-Hispanic Black
- 1.3% are Native American or Native Alaska
- 2.1% are Asian or Pacific Islander
- 1.9% are two races or more
- 9.7% are Hispanic/Latino
Eligible Voters in Nebraska By the Numbers (Data from OLLAS.)
- 90.5% are non-Hispanic White
- 3.6% are non-Hispanic Black
- 3.4% are Hispanic/Latino
There’s pizza, soda and chips for the mostly teenage audience attending. Staff members are stationed around the room with information about voter registration, the candidates running, and what each office does. Lopez is hoping to get her peers excited so they’ll get their friends excited.
“Especially as a Latino community that’s growing, it’s very important that they get educated on politicians instead of just complaining about the issues that are going on,” Lopez said. “Actually getting out to vote to actually have a say.”
Getting people to vote has proven to be hard, especially during midterm elections. And it’s especially true for Latino voters. According to the Pew Research Center, only 30 percent of eligible Latino voters in the US turned out to vote in 2010. That’s way lower than the 45 percent turnout rate among non-Hispanic black and white voters. In the 2012 presidential election, though, Latino voter turnout was at 60 percent.
“So the question is then, what are campaigns doing to ensure that they’re actually reaching those voters?” Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado, politics professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said.
A few years ago he published a report about the Latino electorate. During presidential elections, campaigns do a lot more to reach out to non-mainstream voters.
“Those are usually very much focused on, minority populations, unmarried women, and young people in particular. This is why Obama was able to win in 2012. So that’s why you see higher turnout during the national elections. Because those offices speak directly to those constituencies,” Benjamin-Alvarado said.
During midterms, campaigns tend to focus on who they know will go to the polls. According to Gallup, midterm voters tend to be non-Hispanic white and older than 50. Benjamin-Alvarado points out President Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns are proof reaching out to unlikely voters can affect turnout, especially among Latinos. But campaigns have to change the way they try to reach Latinos too.
Lazaro Spindola, director of the Nebraska Commission on Latino American Affairs, gets asked by politicians and state agencies for advice on Latino outreach all the time. He tells them to meet with people in their district in person.
“We Latinos rely more on face-to-face connections. The kind of trust you can inspire in me versus what a paper says about you. I mean you’re not going to do that just by putting radio spots or flyers or things like that,” Spindola said.
But those same politicians and agencies are often slow to take his suggestions.
“They are willing to listen but they are not that willing to change the approach. In other words, they want to keep doing things the way they have been doing it traditionally,” Spindola said.
For instance, three counties in Nebraska are required to provide the same election information in Spanish as they do in English. According to Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act, Spindola said, “it specifies that if a political subdivision has a certain percentage of individuals who do not speak English, then all voting materials relating to educational materials, the actual ballot, the direct assistance by staff should be in the language that the person speaks. This doesn’t necessarily have to be Spanish. This could be Vietnamese, Chinese, Tagalog, any other.”
Spindola recently looked at Dawson County, where Lexington is the largest town, Dakota County, which includes South Sioux City, and Colfax County, where Schuyler is located. Each had some, but not all the same information in Spanish. And none had a full-time bilingual employee, just a part-time staff member. Spindola said these counties are inadequately complying with the Voting Rights Act. And that presents a problem for some voters.
“The issue is that this is a systemic barrier presented to not fully-English speaking voters. Most of these people speak relatively simple English for their everyday life activities. But probably they do not have the capability to read English and navigate through a voter registration form or through a ballot,” Spindola said.
Due to age and citizenship requirements, about one-third of Latinos in Nebraska are eligible to vote. That means the lack of Spanish information and resources about when, where, and how to vote can have a significant impact on Latino turnout. So far, most of the work to reach out to Latino voters has come from within the Latino community, like the Heartland Workers Center. They’ve worked with the Douglas County Election Commission to hire bilingual poll workers for precincts in South Omaha since 2008.
Back at "I Vote For My Family," Dayana Lopez says she wants to get her peers engaged in the political process now to make it a habit. She wants them to think of voting as a way to represent the friends or family they may know who can't vote and may not be eligible for possibly decades because of the lengthy U.S. citizenship process.
“Honestly, coming from a Latino family, we don’t really talk about politics at all at my house. I think when a lot of families are undocumented, they don’t really have a say. Part of the thing is we’re giving them the tools to get out, help other people, and help their community as a whole,” Lopez said.
Alondra Moreno is one of the teens attending the "I Vote For My Family" meeting. “I’m actually really glad I came," Moreno said. "I learned a lot about the candidates and election. I’m not currently registered to vote but I got the form so I’m excited to register. “
But her friends?
Research on Latino Voters
- Latino Voting Eligibility in Nebraska, UNO Office of Latino/Latin American Studies
- Hispanics Punch Below Their Weight in Midterm Elections, Pew Research Center
- Latinos in 2012 Election: Nebraska, Pew Research Center
“I don’t think they even know that elections are coming up. So I’m excited to go back to school and my community and try to get people to vote and register,” Moreno said.
Because the Secretary of State’s office does not keep track of voter demographics we won’t know exactly how this kind of outreach will affect voter turnout this year. But if this kind of outreach is successful, the next generation of Latino voters could soon be joining Moreno at the polls.