Group aims to boost Latino voting
The Arizona Republic
Mar. 13, 2006
Matthew Benson and Yvonne Wingett
Members of a group dedicated to finding and mobilizing Latino voters are setting
up shop in Phoenix in preparation for Tuesday's election, but with their eyes on
bigger prizes in November 2006 and 2008.
For Tuesday's election, they will be in the Valley to oversee election
procedures under the new voter identification requirements of Proposition 200.
By the end of April, the group, Mi Familia Vota, will launch a grass-roots
effort in Arizona, seeing promise in the state's growing Hispanic population and
weak political participation.
Its goal for the November election: 60,000 newly registered voters. Success
would mean more than additional votes.
Political experts agree that an awakening of the Latino-voter bloc would send
ripples across Arizona's electoral landscape. No constituency is growing faster.
And none shows greater potential for political change.
"In a state like Arizona, both parties will need to have successful efforts to
court that community," said Doug Cole, a confidant to former Gov. Fife
Symington, a Republican. "The demographics are changing in the Southwest."
Candidates, both major parties and nonpartisan organizations are working to woo
and sign up Latino voters, the country's largest minority group.
Tuesday's election is Arizona's first held under the new voter rules of
Proposition 200, which was approved in 2004 and mandates minimum identification
requirements at the polls. It's a cause for concern among some groups who fear
the rules could become an additional election barrier for voters, especially
those of low income and little education.
For now, members of Mi Familia say they're content to see how the regulations
play out. They'll be walking heavily Latino precincts to make sure voters
understand the Election Day requirements, and plan to be on hand Tuesday to
observe the polls.
Theirs is not a purely defensive stance. Mi Familia has a team of 20 attorneys
ready to file challenges in cases of voter disenfranchisement.
"The Proposition 200 issue is certainly about Arizona, but the whole country is
wondering how these things will impact people's access to polls," said Jorge
Mursuli, national executive director of the group. "It's a series of mysteries
on what's going to happen, on what the real outcome of Proposition 200 is."
Mi Familia officials have flown in and out of the state over the past several
months, meeting with local political party leaders, non-profit agencies and
They chose Arizona and Pennsylvania as expansion sites for the 2006 elections.
"We're going into communities where Latinos represent the critical mass,"
national field director Irma Palacios said. "Given Phoenix's current turnout
rate and voter registration rates, we believe (Mi Familia Vota) is going to have
a huge impact."
Mi Familia is funded in part by the People for the American Way Foundation, a
charitable arm of the left-leaning People for the American Way. But Mi Familia
officials say their mission is nonpartisan.
Unlike similar groups, Mi Familia has big bucks for its operations: Its Arizona
budget is estimated at $1 million to $2 million, according to local community
members familiar with its plans.
The group built its reputation off the work it did in 2004 in traditionally
Republican southern Florida. Mi Familia said it signed up 72,000 Hispanic
voters, 40 percent as Independents.
Its formula is a combination of hitting Latino neighborhoods, strip malls,
beauty salons and grocery stores to sign up eligible voters. It's about face
time, reaching potential Latinos where they live and shop, and speaking to their
culture and in their language. It also works to develop civic engagement and
civic participation through partnerships with local organizations familiar with
segments of the Hispanic community.
"They have been able to combine the grass-roots sophistication of the labor
movement with the policy priority side and civil rights side," said Adam Segal,
director of the Hispanic Voter Project at Johns Hopkins University.
"It's quite different than a lot of the other models, where it's been too
Washington-centric, or too much centered on the image of a foundation or
A number of factors work against Latino political participation.
Demographics show that minorities tend to be of lower income and education,
hampering hamper civic engagement, said Arizona State University political
science Professor Adrian Pantoja. The Hispanic community is fragmented in
language and issues it deems important, especially in a border state such as
It's a young population, as well, and there's lag-time between when immigrants
become citizens, become eligible to vote and then actually do.
Groups such as Mi Familia can offset those disadvantages by bringing the
political process to people's doorsteps.
"These groups are critical to the political empowerment of Latinos, not only in
Arizona, but across the nation," Pantoja said.
But registering and voting are two different things. The key to effective
registration efforts, Cole said, is giving people an issue or candidate they can
get behind. A reason to vote.
But Mi Familia and other registration groups must overcome the same hurdle:
Voting is habit. So is not voting.
"You absolutely have to give a reason to vote if they're not used to voting,"
Both he and Pantoja noted that there is reason to be skeptical of the successes
trumpeted by registration groups. Figures are difficult to verify, claims nearly
impossible to authenticate.
But any degree of success in mobilizing Latino votes could sway Arizona
The beneficiary, at least initially, figures to be the Democratic Party.
While it has traditionally been the home of Latino voters, Cole called the
constituency "up in the air" and noted that both parties will be making
Arizona does not keep statistics on Hispanic voting strength because voters do
not identify themselves by race or ethnicity when registering. A survey by the
U.S. Census Bureau on turnout in the 2004 election estimated that 296,000 of
Arizona's 354,000 registered Hispanics voted, said Rosalind Gold, senior
director of policy research and advocacy of the National Association of Latino
Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund. The survey put the number of
unregistered, but eligible Latinos voters at 275,000.
Mi Familia officials estimate metro Phoenix's potential pool of eligible
Hispanic voters is about 300,000.
Ironically, Pantoja said, Proposition 200 could spur a backlash that helps the
Hispanic community build political might. He noted the California
example: In 1994, voters in that state instituted tight restrictions on state
services available to undocumented residents through a measure known as
Pantoja cited the anger and resentment that followed as a driving force behind a
wave of registration and get-out-the-vote efforts that helped paint the state
It's now among the most reliably Democratic states.
Could that happen in Arizona in response to Proposition 200?
"The question is: Will there be that backlash in Arizona?" Pantoja said.
"The answer is: Time will tell."
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