SUNNYSIDE, Wash. – Maria Valencia, a 56-year-old mother of five, can’t read or write. A native of Mexico, she isn’t a U.S. citizen and isn’t eligible to vote.
None of that stopped her from attending one of several events aimed at getting out the vote among Hispanics in Eastern Washington. Even if Valencia can’t vote, she says she intends to share everything she learns about the issues with the people in her home who can – her husband and three of her children.
And voter registration groups say that is precisely the point, proving that efforts to register Latino voters are making a difference.
Could this be the year Latino voters find power in their numbers?
Absolutely, said Placido Salazar, Northwest regional director for the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project.
“When you have an election that is so close – and most elections are close – I think the Latino vote can be the deciding factor,” Salazar said. “If the Latino community would really get out, register and vote, it could really have a major impact on an election.”
Numbering nearly 40 million nationally, Hispanics are the largest minority and the fastest-growing segment of the electorate.
Washington state’s Hispanic population more than doubled during the 1990s, and in 2002, it was estimated at more than 490,000 people. In the agriculture-heavy Yakima Valley, roughly 35 percent of the more than 220,000 residents were of Hispanic origin, according to the 2000 Census.
Campaigns and advocacy groups are recognizing the sheer numbers.
For the first time, the nonprofit, nonpartisan Southwest Voter Registration Education Project worked to register Latino voters in Washington state this year, resulting in close to 4,000 new voters for the Nov. 2 election.
It’s an unprecedented effort that’s been repeated nationally, where hundreds of thousands of new registered voters could be a wild card in this year’s election.
In 2000, George W. Bush campaigned hard for the historically Democratic-leaning Hispanic vote, receiving 35 percent to Al Gore’s 62 percent. Bush’s nephew, George P. Bush, whose mother is Latina, campaigned in Washington state that year.
The visit wasn’t repeated in 2004, but voters shouldn’t assume Republicans have lost interest in the Latino vote, said Pedro Celis, state chairman of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly.
“It’s more competitive now,” Celis said. “There are more people, more organizations reaching out to the Hispanic vote, which is a good thing.”
To better get out their message, Republicans have focused on issues that are important to Latino voters, Celis said. He pointed to a visit by Hector Barreto, administrator of the Small Business Administration, as an example of candidates paying better attention to better educated voters.
“The effort has been there,” he said.
The state Republican party has largely left such efforts up to its national and coalition groups, which arranged Spanish-language advertising and events for candidates to meet with Hispanic communities, spokeswoman Suzanne Tomlin said.
The same can’t be said for the state Democratic party.
At Sunnyside’s Salon Navarros, a cement-block hall for weddings and quinceaneras, several dozen people turned out to hear farm labor activist Dolores Huerta stump for John Kerry, Democratic candidate for president.
A pile of voter registration forms sat on a nearby table, as Huerta encouraged Latinos to get involved.
“We don’t have to have citizenship to be able to pass out fliers or make phone calls,” said Huerta, co-founder of the United Farmworkers of America and the group’s first vice president. “We’re the lynchpin of this election. Latinos are the lynchpin of this election.”
The state Democratic party started an effort to register voters in May, and in the last month has switched its focus to encouraging those same people to cast their votes, said Antonio Ginatta, Latino vote director for the state Democratic party.
“The energy is tremendous,” Ginatta said. “It’s the first we’ve seen such efforts at this level. There have been efforts in the past, but nothing like this.”
With the election just days away, both parties and advocacy groups are operating phone banks across the state to sway the Latino vote.
Regardless of the outcome, those efforts should prove Washington’s Hispanic population matters – and not just in the national election, but at the local level as well, said Salazar of the voter registration project.
“It’s the first time the Latino community in the state of Washington has some influence,” Salazar said. “We have planted the seed of participation. We know we’ll never get 100 percent, but when we get a substantial percentage, we will have influence.
“And that’s what we’re working for,” he said. “To show the Latino community is a major political power in this country.”