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Advocates see room for improvement with Latino voter turnout in Yakima Valley

By Jasper Kenzo Sundeen Yakima Herald-Republic

Now that the final election results are in the books, advocates see room for improvement when it comes to Latino voter engagement in Yakima County.

The 2022 election came after OneAmerica, an immigrant rights advocacy nonprofit, and several community leaders filed a lawsuit alleging Yakima County commissioner elections disenfranchised Latino voters.

The lawsuit led to a redistricted county commission and activists were galvanized. They spent days knocking on doors and phone banking to encourage community members to register and vote.

So how did they do in the final numbers?

The Yakima County auditor’s office tracks turnout data for voters with Spanish surnames and organizations use that number to estimate turnout among Latino voters.

That turnout was 26% countywide — more than double the the primary and the 2021 election, but lower than the 2018 midterm election, when it reached 41%.

Total turnout countywide was 49.78% in November 2022 election, according to the Yakima County Auditor’s Office.

Latinos were still underrepresented in the 2022 election, advocates said. Estimates from the most recent U.S. Census data show around 78,000 adults over the age of 18 in Yakima County are Hispanic or Latino. In 2022, about 9,123 voters had Spanish surnames.

In 2018, 71,000 adults were Hispanic or Latino and 13,639 ballots were cast by voters with Spanish surnames.

“This election sets a good tone, but there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done,” said Renato Mendoza, an organizer for nonpartisan group Poder Latinx.

Mendoza grew up in Yakima, but this was the first year Poder Latinx organizers were working on the ground in Washington.

Audel Ramirez, an organizer for OneAmerica, was more optimistic.

“I think it’s wonderful. If we look at actual number of voters compared to last year,” Ramirez said. “It shows a tremendous increase from one year to the next.”

Yakima City Council member Matt Brown, the new chair of the Republican Party in the county, shared that optimism.

“I believe that every individual’s right to vote should be respected and encouraged. I’m glad to see that voters with Spanish surnames participated in the election and had their voices heard,” he said in an email.

Throughout the election, Ramirez and Mendoza said the redistricting in the county encouraged Latino voters, but more outreach and education are needed. Mendoza praised efforts from the Yakima County Auditor’s office.

“At the county level, there’s always the opportunities to do more,” Mendoza said, before adding:”I thought (the auditor’s office) were doing pretty well. They had a satellite office in Sunnyside near the end of the county, that was great.”

Diving into county turnout data

Martha Jiménez, bilingual program analyst in the Yakima County auditor’s office, noted turnout was lower than the general elections in 2018 and 2020.

“With every election there are always variables that affect voter turnout in general. For example a few of those are whether the election falls in an odd or even year, if the race is contested, if it’s a presidential election or if there are (issues) that galvanize voters,” Jiménez said in an email.

The general election in 2020 included a presidential race, encouraging higher turnout. The 2022 election is more comparable to the last midterm election.

In 2018, voters with Spanish surnames turned out in higher numbers and made a greater share of the total votes cast than in 2022. Ramirez said those high numbers were linked to Donald Trump’s presidency.

“We have to look at the political and cultural environment we were in,” Ramirez said. “Once 2020 happened and Trump was no longer in office, we saw a drop-off.”

In the last 12 years, the two elections with the highest number of voters with Spanish surnames were in 2016 and 2020. For midterms in the past 12 years, 2018 had the highest turnout rate for voters with Spanish surnames.

Voters with Spanish surnames made up a larger portion of registered voters between 2016 and 2020 than before.

Maintaining that level of voter engagement is key, Ramirez and Mendoza said. OneAmerica and Poder Latinx plan to continue efforts throughout the year.

There is room for optimism when it comes to voter turnout. More voters with Spanish surnames turned out than in the 2010 and 2014 midterms. Registration and turnout of voters with Spanish surnames increased in 2022 after a dropoff in 2021.

The number of registered voters with Spanish surnames in Yakima County has grown by nearly 60% since 2010, when ballots were issued for 21,606 voters with Spanish surnames. In 2022, 35,003 voters with Spanish surnames received ballots. The population of Hispanic or Latino citizens has grown at a similar rate, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Gaps in turnout and representation

Mendoza pointed out there are still gaps in engagement.

In 2022, about 69% of Hispanic or Latino citizens who are eligible to vote in Yakima County received ballots. That’s a rough estimate based on the most recent population data from the U.S. Census, from 2021, and voters with Spanish surnames — which is not a perfect representation of Hispanic and Latino voters. About 18% of adult Hispanic and Latino citizens voted.

That means there are roughly 28,000 Hispanic or Latino citizens who are not registered to vote in Yakima County, based on Census and election data.

In addition, turnout for voters with Spanish surnames has been lower than general turnout for every election in the last 12 years. Turnout for all voters has averaged about 56% during the last four midterm elections. Voters with Spanish surnames have averaged a 31% turnout rate for those same elections.

The why

Systemic challenges, like obstacles to citizenship, language barriers and a lack of voting information can make it difficult for Hispanic or Latino residents to register.

Mendoza and Ramirez said while canvasing they would meet community members who were simply unaware of the election.

Language barriers also play a role. Voting for the first time — learning about how and where to vote and candidates’ platforms — can be daunting. Voting in an unfamiliar language and jargon is intimidating for many. Residents who seek citizenship face an additional layer of exhausting processes.

Mendoza pointed out that more young voters should be involved.

“As the Spanish-speaking population grows, if young folks are not engaged and active, the (turnout) numbers are going to go lower,” he said, adding that younger community members should be more active in the community. “They’re the ones that are inheriting this world.”

In the last two general elections, turnout for voters with Spanish surnames was almost always lowest among those aged 18-34, according to data from the Yakima County Auditor’s office. The same was true in the 2022 primary election. In all three cases, voters age 18-34 made up more than 40% of voters with Spanish surnames.

What work is being done?

Organizations throughout the Yakima Valley — from groups like La Casa Hogar and the Latino Community Fund to Radio KDNA — spent the fall spreading awareness and information.

Mendoza praised collaboration across the county as turnout doubled amongst voters with Spanish surnames compared to the primary elections.

Work has been ongoing for some organizations, like La Casa Hogar, and has been effective over the last decade. There are more registered voters with Spanish surnames and more Latino and Hispanic citizens than there were in 2010.

In the 2022 election, Brown, the leader of the Yakima County Republican Party, said the GOP also sought higher turnout, investing more than $14,000 in get out the vote efforts.

“We will engage our Hispanic and Latino voters in their own communities. This will ensure that the voices of all members of our community are heard,” Brown said in an email.

Over the next year, OneAmerica and Poder Latinx will both focus on voter engagement, even outside election season.

“For me, it hasn’t really stopped,” Ramirez said.

He is still working to educate residents about the process of voting and the effects of public institutions. He said residents responded to issues like the county’s use of funds and increased representation from redistricting.

He lauded Dulce Gutierrez’s candidacy for county commissioner in District 2 and hopes more Latino candidates emerge in the next few years.

Mendoza said maintaining engagement can be a struggle, and there aren’t many people working on the issue. He’s the only Poder Latinx organizer in Yakima.

“There’s only so many people I would be able to contact per day,” Mendoza said.

Mendoza said that Poder Latinx’s model of engagement is issue-based. Volunteers asked community members what they cared about while door knocking. Mendoza said he’ll spend the next several months connecting residents with advocates.

“When we were talking to folks at doors, we were identifying priorities,” Mendoza said. “There’s other organizations that we can partner with in work, that’s how we’ll keep people engaged.”

Poder Latinx is betting long-term civic engagement leads to more future voting. Mendoza also hopes to collaborate with public institutions to encourage youth to register and vote. He said Poder Latinx wants to do more nonpartisan voter engagement at local schools and colleges.

County Commissioner elections

The OneAmerica lawsuit resulted in new county commissioner districts and general elections which are within those districts rather than at-large across the county.

Estimates based on 2020 voting precincts show those districts are still not evenly divided when it comes to Latino and Hispanic residents over the age of 18.

Rough estimates show 23% of District 1 adults, 49% of District 2 adults and 68% of District 3 adults identify as Latino or Hispanic. District 1 had the highest turnout rate of voters with Spanish surnames, 33%, according to data from the auditor’s office.

District 2, where Gutierrez was running for county commissioner, and District 3 each saw 23% turnout rates from voters with Spanish surnames. Gutierrez, a Democrat, lost the election to Republican Kyle Curtis, gaining nearly 44% of the vote to Curtis’ 56%.

There are opportunities to increase Hispanic and Latino voter turnout in District 2, which covers much of the city of Yakima, and District 3, which stretches through the Lower Valley. In District 2, there are about 18,000 more Hispanic or Latino adults than registered voters with Spanish surnames and in District 3 there are about 23,000.

District 2 and 3 will both be open for election again in 2024, during a presidential election year.

Poder Latinx focused on those areas on during the last election, Mendoza said.

“There is, again, a lot of work that needs to be done,” Mendoza said. “In general, as the Latino community grows across the country, they’re going to be more important in elections.”