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.
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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In the 2020 election, I almost voted for a candidate from Oregon's Progressive Party. It was my first time voting since coming of age, and I was severely disheartened by the experience, if not all that surprised. You see, my Progressive candidate in all honesty had no chance of winning in the general election because independent and third-party candidates are suppressed by the Democratic and Republican parties. It often feels like the country is divided into Democratic and Republican sections with a tiny percent of voters in the middle that can't decide. At least, that's the narrative that I've been taught my whole life. But it couldn't be more wrong.
Democrats and Republicans have a monopoly — or more like a duopoly — on politics. These two monolithic parties shut out independent voters and other parties in uncompetitive ways. Their most blatant strategy of maintaining control over the government is through closed primaries.
Forty percent of the country. That's roughly how many Americans identify as neither Democratic nor Republican. On the other hand, about 30 percent of Americans identify as a Democrat and another 30 percent identify as a Republican, according to FiveThirtyEight. But when you look at national and local governments, Democrats and Republicans consistently dominate 100 percent of the seats. No wonder I was disheartened about voting for an independent or third-party candidate. For voters like me, it's an uphill battle to elect leaders from different parties even if they have popular support, simply because of the way our elections are run.
Independent and third-party voters are shut out in closed primaries, which are often the elections that really matter. That's why every election year, the Democratic and Republican parties tell these voters to join their party if they want a say. But independents and third-party voters don't want to join a major party in order to vote. Why should they? These are taxpayer-funded elections after all. The fact that independent voters continue to grow in number every year is testament to the fact that their strategy isn't working, it is just plunging us deeper into political dysfunction.
We often underestimate the impact that primaries have on the political playing field, but as the country becomes more and more polarized and sinks deeper and deeper into its liberal or conservative communities, many cities and counties that lean left or right practically guarantee that whoever wins their primary election will win in the general election. That means that while third-party and unaffiliated voters might feel as though their vote counts in the general election, the truth is that the winning candidate was already decided in the primary election.
To me, the single most frustrating thing about a two-party, closed primary government is what it does to our elected leaders. It reinforces the "us vs. them" mentality and encourages radicalization. I've seen our political leaders cater to their polarized voters, as these voters are the most likely to donate and show up to the polls. Once these far right and far left leaders are put in the same building, compromising on policy becomes practically impossible.
Moreover, independent candidates and third parties face a nearly impossible battle of competing with Republicans and Democrats for a variety of reasons, including the spoiler effect. This is when voters don't vote for their preferred candidate, and instead vote for a less preferred but more mainstream candidate simply to prevent their least preferred candidate from winning. (This is exactly what I did in the 2020 election.) It becomes a battle of who is the least bad candidate, instead of who is the best candidate.
That's messed up. Not only are voters like me compelled to register with parties we don't identify with and choose candidates we don't like, but we are excluded if we don't. Instead, we should have one big open primary where all parties and voters could give their input, instead of just the 60 percent of voters who are either Republican or Democratic.
That could be coming sooner than you think. More and more young Americans are registering as independents than ever before. We are tired of thinking only left and right. We think left, right, forward, backward, down and up. With open primaries and ranked-choice voting campaigns sprouting up, we are approaching a more representative democracy that benefits everyone, not just the political duopolies.
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Maine has taken a big step toward making its primaries more politically inclusive.
State lawmakers voted in overwhelming bipartisan fashion on Wednesday to allow voters not registered with a major party to cast a ballot in a primary election. While the bill requires another vote in both chambers before it goes to Democratic Gov. Janet Mills' desk, the previous votes indicate passage is very likely.
While many state legislatures remain divided on election reform issues, Maine and nearby Vermont presented rare examples of bipartisan collaboration this week.
Currently, independents (also known as unenrolled voters) cannot participate in primaries unless they register with a party. Starting in 2024, such unaffiliated voters would be able to cast a ballot in a party's primary without needing to register with that party. Fifteen other states use a similar semi-open primary system, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Open Primaries, an election reform organization that advocates for nonpartisan primaries, says this change would enfranchise 400,000 independents in Maine, or about one-third of the state's total registered voters.
"For many years, the attitude about independent voters has been that they should join a party if they want to participate. That's changing, in Maine and around the country," said John Opdycke, president of Open Primaries. "Elected officials are starting to appreciate that independents want to participate but they don't like the idea that you have to join a team in order to have a voice. Letting all voters vote may sound simple, but it's a profound component of what it will take to improve our politics."
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Frazier, a student at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law, runs The Oregon Way, a nonpartisan blog.
A vibrant democracy depends on two factors: the scope of participation and the depth of participation. In other words, how many different kinds of people can participate and what is the extent of that participation. Generally, democracy reformers have aimed to broaden the scope and increase the depth of participation, while accommodating the constraints imposed by the complexity of the issues facing society.
In terms of scope, we've slowly but surely moved from the white, male, property-owning participants in Athens' democracy to models in states like Alaska, where all voters — regardless of gender, race, background and ideology — at least have the option to meaningfully participate in elections. The steps from Athens to Alaska were too slow and too small but were nevertheless important. And there are still many more steps to be taken, such as making mail-in voting a norm, making Election Day a holiday and so on.
In terms of depth, the evolution has been less clear. Athens exercised a direct democracy, arguably the pinnacle of participation. Over time, more and larger barriers were added to create distance between the people and the policy. These democratic "middlemen" have attempted to make up for the gulf. Around the late 19th century in America, for instance, the thinking went like this: You pick your party based on your ideology, then the party leaders pick who represents you.
That was the shallowest level of participation — a platform outside of your control, leaders a step removed from your selection, and infrequent, corrupt elections serving as the only means for some democratic participation. Since then, we've hardly made any improvements on the depth of participation: Platforms are still outsourced to parties, party insiders (instead of bosses) now decide the candidates and, outside of wealthy individuals with a lot of spare time, and corrupt elections remain the only means of making your democratic voice heard. Now, folks like Katherine Gehl and the Institute for Political Innovation are trying to remove those middlemen by reducing party control over elections, for instance.
In some cases the barriers to broader and deeper democratic participation made sense as a means to solve problems inherent to an increasingly complex world. Some of those barriers continue to make sense. That's the reason why few people are calling for a return to direct democracy, especially at the level of national governance. Congress passes hundreds of bills each session — few think it's possible for Americans to stay reasonably up to date on and informed of the latest legislative proposals to make an informed decision on every bill.
In most cases the remaining barriers are antiquated and anti-democratic. Take closed primaries. They were created in an age in which parties were seen as necessary conduits of voters' desires. Over time, they became a means to reinforce the strength of the party rather than to improve the party's ability to be a good agent of the will of the people. So, like an appendix, it's time to remove this vestigial democratic "reform."
Closed primaries fail on both the question of the scope and depth of participation. First, in practice, closed primaries are only a tool of the most partisan voters — leaving less engaged partisan colleagues and all non-affiliated voters on the outside of the democratic process. That's not the democratic arc we're trying to follow. Second, the depth of democratic participation is also hindered by closed primaries. Instead of giving voters a choice between all candidates at each stage of the election — primary and general — they're confined at "step one" to only picking those that have likely curried favor with party insiders.
Any new democratic reform (as well as all current barriers to participation) ought to be subjected to this same test. First, does it unnecessarily narrow the scope of participation? If so, it should neither be followed nor perpetuated. Second, does it decrease the depth of participation? If so, it should neither be followed nor perpetuated. This test should also inform how reformers prioritize working on different ideas: Those that do the most to broaden the scope and increase the depth of participation ought to be favored and more heavily invested in.
This test will lead to tough trade-offs and controversial decisions, but for too long democratic reformers have failed to rally behind common causes and have instead selflessly and unsuccessfully fought for their solution at all costs.
Applying this test, efforts to open primaries, for instance, should be a priority for democratic reformers. Unlike other suggestions, open primaries bring new democratic participants into the decision-making process and give those participants more ways to shape our democracy. Other proposals either don't address the scope or depth of participation, or do so in a less substantial way.
The arc of our democratic evolution is long, but it must bend toward participation. The scope and depth of participation has to be the north star for democratic reformers. The stakes are too high to continue to distribute finite resources on myriad reform efforts.
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