As the Democratic Party’s presidential primary season moves into the homestretch with Senators Clinton and Obama vying to match each other stride for stride, two voter groups — Latinos and the young — are playing increasingly central roles. The Latino vote in California broke heavily for Hillary Clinton, helping her win resounding victories there, while support among young voters is widely credited with fueling the enthusiasm propelling Barack Obama’s campaign.
Recently, these two voting blocs came together in ways that could alter the political landscape for both parties. In a just-concluded pilot project conducted by the venerable Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project, SVREP registered 1,700 young voters at nine Los Angeles community colleges, adding a nifty twist designed to increase actual voter turnout by having nearly two thirds of these newcomers register as permanent absentee voters.
[Pictured is SVREP’s Denise Lopez, left, registering an LA City College Student]
“The traditional complaint about registering young voters is that many of them don’t actually turn out to vote,” says Unai Montes-Irueste, director of SVREP’s National Voter Registration & Education Project. “You might see lots of enthusiasm and energy in the campaign, but then the voting totals are often disappointing.”
“With people under 30, it’s likely that they’re going to move from one election to the next, meaning they would have to reregister each time they moved,” he says. “But if they register as permanent absentees and use the address of an older relative as we’re recommending — their parents, say, or an aunt — they’ll get their ballot two weeks before the election, they’ll be bombarded with messages from the candidates, and they’ll likely vote.” ****
As a side benefit, those relatives might well get involved in the process, as well.
Although, Montes-Irueste’s team worked with instructors, young activists, community college staff, and administrators at community colleges throughout Los Angeles, they focused on four campuses: LA Trade Tech, LA City College, Southwest College, and East LA College.
“We wanted to test against different populations,” reports Montes-Irueste (pictured here). “Southwest is heavily African American, but has a sizeable Latino minority. East LA is heavily Latino, but also has a significant Asian-American population. Each school has its own mix.”
Founded in 1974 by political activist Willie Velazquez in Arizona, SVREP grew out of the Chicano movement to become the largest and oldest nonpartisan Latino voter participation organization in the U.S. In recent years, it has launched such programs as Latino Vote USA, Latino Vote 2000, Campaign for Communities (2004), and the Ten-Four campaigns in the last three presidential campaigns, all under its current president, Anotonio Gonzlalez. These activities have helped double Latino registration, from 5.4 million in 1994 to more than 10 million in 2006—and even more as we’re seeing in this presidential primary race.
In addition to work with under 30 voters, SVREP has developed outreach to communities of faith and small business owners, especially Latinas who work from home or have developed entrepreneurial ventures while caring for persons in their extended families.
“Our start was with the Latino community and our hearts are always there, but we are working to register all kinds of people,” says Montes-Irueste. “For example, although the stereotype of Asian-Americans is that they’re all well-off, their fathers are doctors, and they live comfortable lives, we find that Asian immigrants from places like Vietnam, Indonesia, Cambodia, China, and elsewhere often share the immigrant experience that Latinos know in Los Angeles—issues of low-paying jobs, poor housing, and gang activities.”
As the son of Mexican immigrants, Montes-Irueste is drawn to this work. “My father’s family was Mexican for generations, but my mother’s family was originally from the Basque region in Spain. They were Republican refugees from the Spanish Civil War, fleeing Franco’s fascism to Mexico, so I come by my political activism naturally.”
His family lived for awhile in the United States, but were forced to return to Mexico for three years when they were unable to renew their work visa. “My parents’ experience of being forced out of the country they loved and then having to immigrate again gives me a special feeling for others who are going through the immigrant experience,” he says.
“My grandmother asked me to promise I would spend myself in a worthy cause, come dust, sweat, or blood,” he reports. “I did, and will.”
With degrees from Dartmouth and Brandeis, where he studied under Clinton Labor Secretary and American Prospect publisher Robert Reich, Montes-Irueste has devoted himself to being an advocate on behalf of his community, supporting those who “scratch at the edge of society,” as he says. After graduating from Dartmouth, he joined Teach for America, which brought him to California where he taught fifth graders in Pasadena.
Since then, he has worked for Kerry-Edwards campaign in New Mexico, lent a hand to Obama’s field campaign in Latino areas of Las Vegas and around Reno and Elko with surprisingly large Basque populations, and supported the Prop 89 campaign in 2006 — the Public Financing initiative.
“Registration is the missing part of the equation in these efforts,” he says. “Campaigns typically go after the high-propensity voter who has voted in each of the last five elections and then to the mid-propensity voter who has voted in one of the past three. But they never try to register new voters. They just wait for new voters to come to them.”
As an example, he cites the California Democratic Party’s abysmally low voter-registration levels outside Los Angeles and San Francisco—out in the Red Counties. “For example, San Bernadino County ought to be a progressive hotbed with its large Latino population, but nobody has reached out to them very effectively. We hope to reverse that.”
“Latinos are more progressive than people realize,” he says. “They support Green initiatives. They’re behind single-payer health care reform. Even though Prop 92 failed, Latinos strongly supported this community college measure.”
Having proved his case — that his group can both register young Latino voters and get many of them to register as permanent absentee voters—Montes-Irueste now heads the effort to expand these efforts to community colleges across the Southwest — the rest of California, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and Texas.
SVREP also plans to bring its registration program to high schools, getting administrators and teachers to designate one week a year as voter education and registration week and make that a priority.
“Then we also want to go the four-year colleges, where lots of voter registration activity traditionally has focused,” he concludes. “We’ll want to collaborate, not compete, with other groups trying to register college students, such as Rock The Vote.”
“Because we’re a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, the primaries aren’t as important to us. It’s the general elections where we really want to get more voters involved,” he says. “Our goal for the general election is to register 100,000 new voters under the age of 30 in partnership with Voto Latino.”
Imagine how that will get campaign managers scratching their heads.
[*****Comment on practice of encouraging young people to register at an older relative’s address: “It is not uncommon for young people to keep a parent’s address as a permanent address, and use a different address as a current mailing address. There is nothing illegal or unethical about registering to vote from your parent’s address as opposed to the current mailing address you use for school or work.”]
by Dick Price —
Dick Price is the editor of the LA Progressive