By Alice Daniel
Daniela Simunovic is an organizer for the non-profit group Communities for a New California. She’s advising students who are about to walk a neighborhood to register voters.
“What are you going to do if somebody says they don’t want to vote?” she asks her students.
“Ask them why not?” comes a reply.
“In a friendly tone, of course,” says one of the students.
These canvassers are working in the small Central Valley town of Sanger, where only half of the 12,000 potential Latino voters are registered. And even those who are registered aren’t voting. Just 1,200 Latino voters — out of those 12,000 potentials — cast a ballot in the 2010 election. While Latino voters have become an integral part of California politics, participation lags across the Valley.
“If we were able to mobilize all the voters, we would really be able to change some outcomes in some elections on the issues that are important for our communities,” Simunovic says.
Those issues, she believes, include propositions on the November ballot. That’s why Communities for a New California is also conducting a fall campaign to inform Latino voters on propositions it feels are key to their interests, starting with labor rights and education.
“Like Proposition 32, which will take away the power of working class people and unions to play in the political process,” Simunovic says, “to Proposition 30 which has the potential if passed to …raise significant revenues for our communities.”
Proposition 30 is Gov. Jerry Brown’s tax hike, which this year’s budget is counting on to avoid education cuts. Prop. 32 would ban the use of payroll deductions for political donations, which is expected to restrict the political influence of unions.
In addition, Latino candidates are running in two close congressional races in the Valley. In Congressional District 10, farmworker-turned-astronaut Jose Hernandez is taking on Republican incumbent Jeff Denham; in Congressional District 21, in the South Valley, Hispanic chamber of commerce president John Hernandez faces state assemblyman David Valadao.
Both Jose Hernandez and John Hernandez are Democrats. And Latino voters in California favor the Democratic Party over the Republican Party by a margin of three to one in voter registration.
But the drive to register Latinos is more about giving this under-represented community a voice than it is about party affiliation, say organizers like Arnulfo De La Cruz, California Director of the non-partisan Mi Familia Vota. And efforts to engage voters need to increase in the Central Valley, he says.
“Traditionally the resources are given to our more urban centers like the Los Angeles County area, the Bay Area — San Francisco and Oakland,” De La Cruz says. “So I do think the Central Valley has been neglected.”
More than 250,000 eligible Latino voters in the San Joaquin Valley have not registered, De La Cruz explains, adding that his organization is engaged in a long-term collaboration effort with churches, unions and community organizations in the Central Valley to make Latinos a “more powerful political force.”
If this effort is successful, he says, “both parties — both Republicans and Democrats — would have to take into account that there’s this electorate that hasn’t been active in the past, that’s now kind of bolstered and strong and participating.”
Back in Sanger, Simunovic’s student organizers are busy going door to door. One of those students, 22-year-old Edgar Acevedo, grew up in Sanger and believes Latino voters there have been neglected. He first became a voter himself when someone knocked on his door wielding a form four years ago. Now he knows that those who participate in the political process have a say even in small-town politics.
“They decide what streets get redone, what schools get more money, you know, this and that,” Acevedo says. “I grew up in this town, and I’d like to see you know good things come to it.”
As he knocks on doors, he’s met with plenty of resistance. So far today, he’s been turned away at three houses. But Acevedo thinks it’s worth the effort. At the fourth residence, success: he helps 45-year-old Arturo Daona fill out his voter registration form.
Lisa Garcia Bedolla is Chair of the Center for Latino Policy Research at UC Berkeley. She worked on a research project that evaluated past get-out-the-vote efforts. Voting is habit forming, she says, citing research from the last presidential election.
“Having been contacted once in a previous electoral cycle made you 30 percentage points more likely to vote in the 2008 presidential election,” Bedolla says. “That’s a pretty significant increase in the propensity to vote.”
Still, most campaigns do not mobilize unlikely or low propensity voters. They also overlook another universe of potential voters: people who aren’t citizens but could be. There are more than 180,000 legal immigrants in the valley from Mexico alone, among them Acevedo’s parents.
“I’m trying to help them out but it’s tough. It’s expensive also,” Acevedo says. “So don’t think it’s just like ‘oh you know I’m going to go take the test and become a citizen.’ It takes time and money.”
Mi Familia Vota is beginning to address these needs in the Valley, says De La Cruz. It’s not if the Valley’s going to change, he adds, it’s when.