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."

Doorstep politics
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 politicians.

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 organization."

Political empowerment
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 Arizona.

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," Cole said.

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 politics.

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 overtures.

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 Proposition 187.

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 blue.

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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