Elections

Latinos could decide critical Senate race, but will they vote?

North Carolina Latinos have a chance to play a major role in deciding whether Democrat Kay Hagan holds on to her U.S. Senate seat or hands it over to Republican Thom Tillis.

Latinos make up only a fraction, about 2 percent, of the North Carolina’s nearly 7 million registered voters. But in a race that’s razor tight, even a small number of votes can make a difference between who goes to Washington.

But the approximately 125,000 registered Latino voters are not expected to capitalize on the chance to influence a crucial election that could also determine whether Democrats or Republicans possess control of the U.S. Senate.

Neither candidate seems to stir the necessary passion to prod voters to wake up early, cut lunches short or otherwise disrupt their lives to get to the voting booth.

“I don’t see any excitement for one or the other, to be honest,” said Miguel Figueras, who is leading voter drives for El Pueblo, a Raleigh-based Latino rights group.

Last weekend, teams of volunteers in Charlotte, N.C., kicked off an effort to knock on 1,000 doors of Latino voters. In Raleigh, volunteers affiliated with El Pueblo have already begun making the 15,000 to 20,000 calls they hope to complete before the Nov. 4 election.

But will it work?

Elver Barrios, a drive leader, has been simultaneously registering voters, encouraging them to vote and passing out absentee ballots so they can vote from home, even immediately. He said those he spoke with understand the issues, but are anxious about the election because they don’t know whom to pick.

Both campaigns say Latinos are important to them. Hagan’s campaign said it is working hard to turn out voters in every corner of the state and touted her support of a comprehensive immigration proposal that includes a path to citizenship. Tillis‘ campaign is recruiting bilingual volunteers and working with the state party in distributing campaign materials in Spanish.

Hagan voted for the bill passed by the Senate in 2012 that would increase border security and put millions of undocumented immigrants on a path to citizenship. But she also publicly opposed efforts by President Barack Obama to take executive action that would legalize more undocumented immigrants. Tillis has toed the conservative Republican line _ opposing the Senate plan, which he calls amnesty, and saying the focus should be on securing the border.

“We have two candidates that don’t exactly thrill anyone if immigration reform is your issue,” said Lacey Williams, who leads the civic engagement effort for Charlotte’s Latin American Coalition.

North Carolina is one of five states where Latino voters exceed the difference between the two leading Senate candidates in recent polling, according to an analysis by Latino Decisions, which conducts research and polls on Latino voting.

Hagan arguably has the most to lose, considering Latinos tend to vote Democratic. She could be undermined by low Latino turnout, according to Gary Segura, a Stanford University political science professor who runs Latino Decisions. Many blame her for Obama’s decision to delay the executive order, which he originally promised to issue before the end of the summer.

“Everyone on the planet believes (the delay) was to help Hagan get reelected,” Segura said.

If Hagan loses, or if Republicans regain control of the Senate, community activists say the Democrats and Obama will have only themselves to blame. Clarissa Martinez De Castro, a deputy vice president of the National Council for La Raza, an advocacy group, said the delay of the executive order has hurt Democratic support.

Speaking at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute gala Thursday, Obama sought to temper hurt feelings and said he would pass the executive order by the end of the year. But some Latinos are questioning why they should believe him this time.

A Latino Decisions poll in June found that 54 percent of Latinos said they would be less interested in voting in the midterm elections if Obama decided not to take action on the executive order.

“It just makes people say ‘I need to take a more careful look at what they’re saying and what they’re doing.’ Because the Democrats, their challenge is to deliver,” Martinez said.

At least one large advocacy group, Presente.org, urged its members to not vote for Hagan and three other Democratic Senate candidates who they feel have not done enough to support immigration.

Latino voter registration in North Carolina has exploded from less than 4,000 in 2002 to nearly 114,000 in 2012, but Latinos have never had a good record of coming out for elections in non-presidential years. Less than 20 percent of Latino voters in the state cast a ballot in the last two non-presidential elections in 2006 and 2010.

In Charlotte, Williams acknowledges the apathy for this year’s election. She said they hope to change some minds this year, but also continue to lay ground work for future elections as the Latino voting bloc continues to grow. She said delivering absentee ballots is one way to get around new voter laws passed by the GOP-led legislature that require citizens to show ID when they vote. Volunteers are encouraging voting by mail so they don’t have to answer potentially uncomfortable questions about having identification.

Critics say the law disenfranchises minority voters. Supporters say it prevents fraud.

The ID requirement doesn’t go into effect until 2016, but voters will be asked this year if they have an ID and told how to get one if they don't.

For some longtime Latino residents in North Carolina, the apathy can be frustrating. Rafael Prieto Zartha, an editor and columnist for Que Pasa-Mi Gente, a Spanish-language newspaper in Charlotte, said the community is missing out on a huge opportunity to demonstrate its political power and to effect change.

“Especially in the midterm elections when participation generally is lower,” Prieto said, “you can have a big impact with a small number of registered voters, but unfortunately there is not the leadership needed to get people to vote.”

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