People Don’t Vote When No One Asks Them To

Originally posted on The New York Times by Matt Platkin.

The Democrats selected Julián Castro, the mayor of San Antonio, to deliver the keynote address at their national convention — the same honor that propelled State Senator Barack Obama into the national spotlight just eight years ago — as part of its courtship of Latino voters, whom the President needs to vote in large numbers if he wants to be re-elected. As it happens, as the campaign manager for a young, outsider candidate for San Antonio’s city council in 2011, I learned something simple but crucial: while younger Latinos are increasingly the focus of national political strategists, they are still largely ignored at the local level.

 

The issue here is that Latinos have historically voted and been represented in legislatures at disproportionately low rates. In the 2010 mid-term elections, for instance, Latinos comprised 6.9 percent of the electorate, their best showing ever in a mid-term election, but still significantly below their 10.1 percent share of eligible voters. Similarly, a 2008 study by the National Conference of State Legislatures found that Latinos represented only 3.3 percent of America’s 7,382 state legislators. Despite this, because Latinos are the fastest growing population in America and are driving demographic changes in swing states, they remain obvious targets for national campaigns that are eager to exploit every potential electoral advantage.

In local elections, though, the crass conventional wisdom that I often heard from political professionals was simply, “Latinos don’t vote.” But uncritical adherence to this conventional wisdom often results in a self-fulfilling prophecy: young Latinos are ignored in local races because of their prior voting record, which ensures similarly low turnout in future elections. In 2011, as an inexperienced campaign manager for a young, Latino city council candidate on the south side of San Antonio – a heavily Latino area – I faced this conventional wisdom directly.

To say I was an inexperienced campaign manager at the outset would be an understatement. Both the candidate, Rey Saldaña, and I were 24 at the time of the election. I first met Rey in 2005 when we were in the same freshman dorm at Stanford. Rey was a San Antonio native, born and raised in the district in which he ran. In high school, he helped lead an initiative to attract the first bookstore to San Antonio’s South Side and spent his college summers back home working for local politicians. And yet, when we started the campaign in April of 2010, Rey had been away from his hometown for nearly five years and had never run for any kind of elected office. I had never managed a campaign and had spent hardly any time in San Antonio.

Despite our inexperience, we quickly learned that running local campaigns apparently did not involve much ingenuity. We kept getting the same, recycled advice from political veterans: look at the voter rolls for the last three elections, and target those who voted in two of them.

We soon recognized a feedback loop at play: candidates and consultants continued to target those who had voted in previous elections — bombarding them with mail, phone calls and visits — while pretty much ignoring the rest of the population. Time and again, Latinos and Anglos alike stressed to us that Latino voters, particularly younger ones, would not turn out come Election Day, no matter what we did. Engaging them — and spending precious campaign dollars on them — was quite simply a waste of time.

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