Latinos turn 18 each year. That means the electorate gets an average of 66,500 new Latino voters each month. The presidential elections of 2016 are two years away, and several swing states—where elections are decided by just thousands of votes—are home to millions of young, eligible, Latino voters and thousands of unregistered ones.
Maria Teresa Kumar knows that if she can help her community leverage its voting power, they can change the course of the nation and subsequently the world. Kumar is the founding president and CEO of Voto Latino, a nonpartisan organization, chaired and cofounded by actress Rosario Dawson, which looks to engage Latino youth in the democratic process.
As the national election approaches, Voto Latino is doing a pilot program with Rock the Vote to register young Latinos in southwestern states.
The program—called #TrendUrVoice—
will be the largest-ever online campaign to target young Latino voters.
Some traditionally partisan states are up for grabs in the election. Texas has 2.5 million eligible Latino youth voters, but some congressional elections are decided by less than 1,000 votes.
Some of those districts have 16,000 unregistered Latinos.
Other swing states include Colorado and Arizona.
Voto Latino has a few key causes, and the issues (immigration reform, health care, and STEM) aren’t light ones. But Kumar believes she can help motivate the 15 million young American Latinos in the United States. “Half of all eligible Latino voters are under age 40,” she says. “We’ve got to seize this opportunity. As our population increases in size and buying power, we have to also increase in voting power.” In 2008, just four years after the organization’s inception, Kumar’s efforts were impacting a presidential election. Voto Latino maximized social media reach in key battleground states, contributing to an increase in Latino voter turnout of at least five percent greater in those states than the national numbers.
In its infancy, Voto Latino existed to increase voter registration among Latinos. Now the group is evolving. Kumar and her street teams have taught individuals how to fill out the US Census and helped Latinos navigate the health exchanges associated with the Affordable Care Act. They provide resources and engage young people on immigration, professional development, and tech innovation.
But Voto Latino is about more than inspiring young people to participate. Kumar wants to provide opportunity. “The bottom line is, our numbers are growing so much in this country, but we are severely underrepresented in several key areas. Politics is just one of those areas,” she says.
Industry is another. In 2014, after realizing that Latinos make up just seven percent of the workforce in Silicon Valley, Voto Latino created an initiative called the VL Innovators Challenge. The contest invites those between ages 18 and 34 to use design and technology to improve the lives of Latinos. Creators of winning mobile apps, programs, websites, social networking platforms, or other innovative digital tools will split $500,000 in grant money. “Tech employers say they don’t have a pipeline to Latino talent, and we hope this challenge will help identify the talented Latinos ready to be hired,” she says.
When Kumar met a kindred spirit in actress Rosario Dawson, she realized she had the unique chance to “impact America for others to help them fulfill their promise.” Voto Latino, she says, has been successful because of people like Dawson who have given their talents and their celebrity to the cause and remained dedicated to equipping young Latinos. Today, the organization offers several training programs that help participants find the potential Kumar found in herself at an early age.
That’s an important step for a growing community struggling to define itself. The median age of all Latinos living in the United States is 27. There are 53 million Hispanics in the United States. That number will climb above 128 million by 2060. Yet most of these Hispanics are represented in state and local elections by much older white men (the average congressional member is 55). “There’s a divorce between the people who make public policy and the population they serve,” says Kumar. She is proud to be an active part of a demographic growing in both number and influence, concerned with issues like the minimum wage, student debt, and job development.
After 10 years, Kumar is seeing signs of life. “The 2012 elections were racially charged, and that motivated a lot of people,” she says. Latinos are noticing the changes. When a burger joint in Colorado caused controversy by asking Latinos to prove citizenship before receiving food, eyebrows were raised. “If we don’t raise consciousness and better participate in the process, our views will never be reflected,” says Kumar. Voto Latino has done that by turning to social media and peer-to-peer relationships. But for Voto Latino it’s not enough to have celebrity support. The organization has to convince young people who have registered to vote to talk their friends and family into doing the same.
“If we don’t raise consciousness and better participate in the process, our views will never be reflected.”
In 2012, Voto Latino debuted a feature that posted voter registration notices to a Facebook user’s wall. Harnessing the power of technology is in Voto Latino’s very fabric. Ten years ago, when people were telling Kumar she was wasting her time, all she had was a URL. She pursued Latino millennials (in English). They said it would take her 25 years.
But as with the Green Revolution in Iran and the Arab Spring in North Africa and the Middle East, something caught on. Latinos in the United States used MySpace and text messaging to organize one of the biggest and most unknown civil rights movements in the nation’s history. High school students staged massive walkouts in support of immigration reform. Hundreds of thousands boycotted work and shopping. As two million Latinos marched peacefully in the streets, Voto Latino used the momentum they caused to create the very first Get Out the Vote app, which generated an automated reminder to get Latinos to the polls. On election day, Latinos increased turnout by eight percent compared to four percent among whites.
Today, Voto Latino continues to leverage technology while states work to modernize the voter registration process. Studies have shown online registration increases turnout by up to 30 percent. They’re also working with national organizations to promote National Voter Registration Day, the largest one-day effort to register American voters. 800,000 Latinos turned 18 in 2013. The biggest obstacle is infrastructure, but there is promise. In 2012, 12 million Latinos voted. That’s half of all eligible voters. Voto Latino registered 93,796 of them. Kumar says the stakes are high. “It’s not just our community that will be left out of the process if we can’t figure out how to engage Latinos,” she says. “America will be left behind. We need everyone involved for the whole thing to work.”