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Researchers combat myths about Latino voting

Griffiths is the national editor of Independent Voter News, where a version of this story first appeared.

Latino voters in Texas have the numbers to shift the political paradigm in their state. However, the turnout rate among Latinos continues to lag behind other groups. This discrepancy is caused by systemic issues and a history of disempowerment that has left many feeling voiceless and unrepresented, according to a recent study.

The authors of "Real Talk: Understanding Texas Latino Voters Through Meaningful Conversation" spent hundreds of hours talking and listening to Latino voters to get a nuanced understanding of how they felt about the political process. And what they found is a serious disconnect between the political parties and Latino communities.

"We spoke to 104 Latino voters and nonvoters in five different regions of Texas," author Cecilia Ballí said during a recent virtual discussion hosted by Open Primaries. "We were trying to see how they make sense of their place in the political system and the political world in this country."

Ballí, Michael Powell and Betsabeth Monica Lugo focused on in-depth discussion rather than surface-level surveys. "We weren't polling them. We were getting to know them intimately," Ballí said.

What the researchers found was a community filled with people both parties have failed to understand and have shown an unwillingness to understand. While a common myth claims the Latino community is largely apathetic — a charge often levied on groups who historically don't vote in high numbers — the truth is many Latinos don't feel their vote matters or that anyone cares about their interests.

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Feeling forgotten and unheard

Asked why campaigns often don't do more outreach than simply releasing Spanish-language ads, Ballí remarked that the problem is the system, and its players, give up on voters who are less likely to participate in elections. Campaigns do not devote time, money and resources to win over people have already decided not to vote.

"They way campaigns work is they purchase data on who has voted in the past and those are the people they do outreach to," she explained. "They reason it is safest to just do outreach on a limited budget and time to people who have voted in the past to try to get them on your side."

This, as Ballí notes, has resulted in a self-perpetuating cycle. And, on a related note, she believes "Americans don't know what to do with" Latinos.

"We saw this for instance [in 2020]," she elaborated. "In the Democratic Party, we had a Latino candidate who ran for president, Julián Castro, and regardless of what you think of his quality as a candidate, his strengths and weaknesses, you could tell from the media narratives and the debates that no one really knew what to make of him and where to put him."

Discussing the typecasting and social stigmas felt among communities of color,, Open Primaries President John Opdyke discussed the idea that "demographics are destiny."

There is a common assumption in the national political narrative that the growth of communities of color will automatically translate to more gains for the Democratic Party. As a result, the Democrats assumes their support, while the Republican Party generally spends little effort trying to attract such voters.

The consequence is a further detachment from these communities, because when support (or lack thereof) is assumed, just like the likelihood of a person to vote is assumed, campaigns feel less incentive to reach out and connect on a personal level and understand the struggles and experiences of individuals within a community, particularly the Latino community.

Ballí said generalizations and assumptions cannot and should not be applied to Latinos, who do not fit neatly within the social and political boxes that are often assigned to them. The political views among Latinos are broad and do not always fall along strict partisan or ideological lines.

"I think we're just beginning to understand — not even to understand, but just witness the great variety of — political views among Latinos," she said.

'Partisanship is low or weak among Latinos'

Because the U.S. political system is dominated by two political parties, the electorate generally has to pick a side to have a voice, but that lock-step system does not fit Latino communities, according to the authors.

They found that a majority of the people they talked to did not adhere to the single-track political mindset that may be assumed by those who control the political narrative.

"There are so many theories out there about partisanship, how it works, where it's coming from," said Powell. "None of them after we talked to a 100 people seemed satisfactory."

He added: "People were not fitting neatly into any of the theories or any of the polling, and as we were studying the popular narratives, the public narratives in journalism and in the media, things didn't really add up."

Ballí added that in the first 20 interviews they had with people, the researchers had no idea what they could say to broadly sum up the Latino vote.

This is not to say that Latinos don't affiliate with political parties. The researchers interviewed people who identified as Democrats, Republicans and independents. However, Ballí explained that there is a great deal of fluidity in how Latinos define their political values that adds complexity to their political identities.

"We didn't hear people speaking very strongly about party platforms," she said. "They were making sense of issues in a very complex way where on some issues they would express ideas that sounded more like Democrats. On other issues, you could classify them as Republican."

She added that there were many people they talked to who said they vote for the candidate, not the party. Or, they would say they did not want to be too extreme or closed off to other ideas or policy positions.

Of course, such ideas may not belong solely to the Latino community.

"It is possible all Americans see issues this way," Ballí said. "We just haven't done these types of conversations and studies with them."

Increasing Latino involvement

Balli mentioned on more than one occasion that there is a common misconception that Latinos do not care about politics. Yet, the research found that Latinos follow political news..

"The vast majority of them could speak to some degree on what was going on, especially in national politics," she said.

What they found was not apathy, but a community full of individuals who are following politics from the sidelines, Ballí explained. And many of them remain on the sidelines because they lack confidence in their vote and the process and the resulting government actions.

"They haven't been able to tie specific leadership among candidates and elected officials to some improvement in their life," she said.

But, Ballí also said there is the reality that voting is a social habit. Like any other social behavior, people learn to vote by seeing other people doing it. And the more an individual votes, the more natural it becomes and a recurring habit is formed.

The issue in many Latino communities, particularly in low-income areas, is that many people didn't grow up watching their parents vote. Ballí noted that not a single nonvoter they interviewed said they saw a parent vote from a young age.

"The strongest predictor of whether or not you vote is if you grew up watching your parents vote," she remarked.

In the study, Ballí and the other co-authors stress the importance of building communities of voting. To boost voter turnout among Latinos, it will quite literally take a village.

However, she also recognizes the layers to this discussion, because at the end of the day, we have a system in which politicians care more about winning elections than encouraging the most participation possible.

Ballí expressed cynicism that the people currently in power will ever try to correct the systemic problems that have fostered a political environment where historically marginalized communities, like the Latino community, never feel like they are being heard or represented.

She does, however, believe that pro-voter and civic engagement groups can make a difference.

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