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More Latinos are registering to vote — and they don't conform to party lines

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Kayla Young
WFAE/La Noticia
Iliana Santillán, left, and María González from El Pueblo, Inc. have been working to distribute voter guides in English and Spanish.

This story was produced through a collaboration between WFAE and La Noticia. You can read it in Spanish at La Noticia. Puedes leer la nota en español en La Noticia.

Latinos are North Carolina’s fastest-growing demographic and voter group. The number of Latinos registered to vote in the state has grown by a third, to about 263,000 people, since the last midterm election.

But Latino voter organizations say the community doesn’t feel heard or understood by either major political party.

Wendy Mateo Pascual is a founder of “Latino Tu Voto Cuenta” or “Latino, Your Vote Counts.” She says voter outreach groups are doing a good job of getting more Latinos registered. But political parties are failing to engage the community, including the more than 40,000 Latinos who are registered in Mecklenburg County.

“I don't think that the parties understand the power of having 42,000 Latinos registered to vote because I don't see any of the parties investing in educating the community and moving the community to vote,” Mateo Pascual said.

The Naleo Education Fund estimates that 1,000 fewer Latinos in North Carolina will vote in this midterm election than four years ago. Their projection of 103,000 Latinos at the polls equates to about 40% of the demographic’s total registered voters.

The disconnect between Latino voters and the political establishment is a reason Mateo Pascual began voter outreach with Latino Tu Voto Cuenta four years ago.

“It is a way to educate the Latino community,” Mateo Pascual said. “One of the things that we realized is that the main reason why our people are not participating is that our people don't understand how the government system works.”

While more than 60% of Latinos living in North Carolina were born in the United States, the political process can still feel foreign, explains Maria González, deputy director of El Pueblo, Inc.

“A lot of the Latino population is very, very new or is second-generation people that can vote,” González said. “If they are citizens that have been naturalized, the voting process can be incredibly different from the voting process in their home countries, so they may go in expecting one thing and it’s completely different.”

That’s one reason El Pueblo Inc. developed non-partisan voter guides and a website, votemosNC.com, in English and Spanish, says executive director Iliana Santillán.

“It's like the hub for all things Latinx voters need. It's in English and Spanish. It has information on the important deadlines, early voting, municipal elections,” Santillán said. “The biggest thing that we have is the bilingual voter guide for the state and then 12 additional counties.”

There are a number of factors that can keep Latino voters from the polls, Santillán says.

In households with mixed immigration statuses, for example, she says there might be concerns about providing personal data.

“The fear is very real,” Santillan said. “We've talked to people who are eligible to vote and it's the first person in the whole family. And they're like, ’no, no, no, you better not do it, because then they'll have our information.’”

Missed opportunities with voters

As El Pueblo volunteers reach out to voters, González says they’re also hearing a frequent lament.

“A lot of what we're hearing on the ground from people, from eligible voters is that they don't feel heard from either party, from any party,” González said.

A result is that Latino voters in North Carolina are more likely to register as unaffiliated than as Republican or Democrat, she says. That’s also a general trend in the state but it’s particularly strong with Latino voters.

As of the 2020 election, 43% of North Carolina Latino voters were unaffiliated, according to the State Board of Elections. Nationwide, Naleo estimates that 52% of Latino voters are Democrats. But more of them are also registering as Republicans.

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Kayla Young
WFAE/La Noticia
The Hispanic Federation hosted a Latino karaoke night in Charlotte to drive registrations before the deadline.

Latino voters are diverse and so are their political priorities, explains Frederick Velez, national director of civic engagement with the Hispanic Federation.

“When people try to put us into a little bloc or say, Latinos do this or Latinos don't do that, we always like to mention, we are the dream of political scientists because we are the swing vote,” Velez said.

Political ad spending on Latino voters remains low, Velez points out, and that can leave voters feeling excluded from the process. A New York University analysis found that political ad spending on Meta platforms, including Facebook and Instagram, was nearly five times less per capita for Spanish speakers than for English speakers during the 2020 election.

“When people try to put us into a little bloc or say, Latinos do this or Latinos don't do that, we always like to mention, we are the dream of political scientists because we are the swing vote.”
— Frederick Velez, national director of civic engagement with the Hispanic Federation.

Velez says more investment needs to be made into understanding Latino voter needs.

“What do you do when groups that are registered as Democrats also vote for some Republican candidates and vice versa?” he asked. “The answer should be, you invest in finding out what they need.”

Anaí Santibáñez with the Hispanic Federation says it’s a mistake for political campaigns to treat Latinos as one-issue voters.

“I think one of the most important things is to make sure that Latinos are being heard on all the things that they care about and not being believed to only care about one thing, which is immigration,” Santibáñez said. “Because we care about all of the things that are affecting us, like housing, the economy, school security, education. All of those things are important to Latino voters, just like they're important to other voters.”

In recent polling by Naleo, Latino voters ranked inflation, women’s reproductive rights and gun safety as their top election issues. Voters were also largely in favor of policies to lower prescription drug costs, to expand voter rights and protect DACA recipients from deportation.

Velez says when it comes to Latino voters, nuance matters.

“You can't talk to Latinos in Charlotte the same way that you would talk to Latinos in east North Carolina or the same way that you would talk to Latinos in Florida or in New York,” Velez said. “So, part of our campaign is bringing that nuance.”

The community also wants to see that they matter outside of election years, he added.

“It's working with trusted sources like community leaders, like pastors, like people that have been there for them previously so that they understand that we are coming at this from the right place,” he said, “instead of pandering to the community.”

Naleo found that three in four Latino voters nationwide are closely following the midterm elections and 63% are almost certain they will vote.

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Kayla Young is a Report for America corps member covering issues involving race, equity, and immigration for WFAE and La Noticia, an independent Spanish-language news organization based in Charlotte. Major support for WFAE's Race & Equity Team comes from Novant Health and Wells Fargo.