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Politics

Breaking Down Latino Voter Registration And Turnout Gaps In North Carolina

Latino early voter
Laura Brache/WFAE
Lucía Ventura Morales, a Mecklenburg County resident, exits the East Mecklenburg High School gym after casting her first-ever vote in a U.S. presidential election on Oct. 15.

Esta nota también está disponible en español en La Noticia.

About a third of Latinos eligible to vote in North Carolina have yet to register.

The regular registration period ended Oct. 9, so their only chance to cast a ballot is by going to an early voting site before Oct. 31. But Latinos face many barriers and pressure when it comes to getting to the polls. They have increased in the last decade due to how much this population has grown.

On the first day of early voting in North Carolina, Lucía Ventura Morales, a longtime Mecklenburg County resident, sat in the waiting room of the Latin American Coalition in Charlotte. She had been taking English and naturalization exam prep courses at the Coalition for the past few months.

Finally, as a citizen, she was riding with some of her classmates to vote in her first presidential election. She said she feels more confident knowing there’s a group of people she can trust at the polls with her.

“I feel more -- I don’t even know how to put it -- more sure about what I’m going to do today,” she said.

Morales also said her vote was important.

“Oh, it represents so much — so much," Morales said. “If we do not go out to vote, our voices will not be heard. It is time for us to come out strong and help those in need."

This and other early voting events by the Coalition are spearheaded by Alba Sanchez. She manages the immigrant welcome center there and is also a first-time voter in a presidential election. She says this type of outreach is essential in getting Latinos out to register and vote.

"When we first started hosting these events, there were about 30,000 registered voters in Mecklenburg County, but only 200 or 300 went out to vote," Sanchez said. "'Why aren’t they voting?’ we asked ourselves. And it’s because they are not informed, because the candidates do not reach out to our community, or because they believe that their vote is not valuable."

North Carolina is home to nearly 1 million Latinos, yet only about one in three are eligible to vote, according to the Pew Research Center.

But the number of eligible Latino voters is growing fast here as more and more become U.S. citizens or turn 18. This election year, more than 225,000 are registered, a 37% increase from 2016 when only 164,000 signed up to vote. Still, that leaves a potential pool of around 113,000 Latino voters whose voices are not being heard at the polls.

Because North Carolina is a swing state, Latino voters here are drawing more attention than ever in this year’s presidential election.

Pew estimates 4.4% of all registered voters in North Carolina are Latino. That could make a big difference in a close election. The close margins in the state in the past three presidential contests mean that Latinos are a crucial voting bloc coveted by presidential candidates and other statewide candidates.

Four years ago, President Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton by 3.66 percentage points or 173,315 votes. In 2012, Republican Mitt Romney beat President Obama by about 92,000 votes, or a margin of 2%. In 2008, Obama, running for his first term, got a little more than 14,000 votes against Republican John McCain.

But putting that type of pressure on historically marginalized groups like Latinos is unfair, said Wake Forest University professor Betina Cutaia Wilkinson.

"Latino people are scared," Wilkinson said. “We know that Latinos are afraid to even complete the census. Of course, not all, but many of them don't want to even if they have papers.”

The efforts of local groups, such as the Latin American Coalition and Mijente, to get Latinos to register and vote has focused on connecting with them one by one and providing resources that will allow them to take hours out of their workday or taking care of their children at home to wait in line to vote.

The Trump campaign has been pursuing the Latino vote for the past year.

Last June, it launched Latinos for Trump. Four years ago, Trump won 28% of the Latino vote, according to 2016 exit polls. Trump's campaign focuses on jobs and the economy to draw Latino voters to vote for him. He’s also touting his fight against the socialist leaders of Venezuela and Cuba, with an eye on the key swing state of Florida, which is home to a large group of Venezuelan and Cuban voters.

On social media, the Latinos for Trump of Alamance County-North Carolina has been the most vocal branch of the Latinos for Trump movement in North Carolina. In that same county, Ricky Hurtado is looking to be the first Latino Democrat to win a state house seat.

The Biden campaign, on the other hand, has been making its last-ditch efforts in North Carolina this month. “Todos Con Biden” -- or "All With Biden" -- car parades were held throughout Charlotte and other parts of the state with the highest shares of the Latino electorate.

Still, Wilkinson finds that neither party has made the necessary efforts at the national or local level to encourage Latino voters from the beginning.

"These face-to-face interactions, these mobilization efforts to get the vote that include conversations, knocking on doors, are really effective among the Latino population," Wilkinson said. "And if these are not taking place, and they get a flier here and there, or they receive a phone call from an unknown number or a text message from an unknown number, and even worse if it is not in their native language, that could be problematic."

In September, a poll from the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials showed that less than half of Latino registered voters in North Carolina have been contacted by a campaign or political party ahead of election 2020.

Similarly, another report from the same group found that Latinos are underrepresented in public office. Only four Latinos were found to have served in elected positions last year at the "local level, whether in counties, cities, school boards, law enforcement, and law enforcement."

Between 1996 and 2019, the number of Latinos serving in public office increased from one to four, despite the state's Latino population growing by 111% between 2000 and 2010. The report suggested Latino representation in government could be key in invigorating the Latino electorate.

The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials projects that nearly 230,000 Latinos in North Carolina will vote in the general election — about 5,000 more than have already registered.

Laura Brache is a Report for America corps member and covers immigration and the Latino community in Charlotte for WFAE and La Noticia.

Tell us about your voting experience. Did it go smoothly? Were there any problems? How were the lines? Did you feel safe? If so, why or why not?

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