Column: More effort needed to get Hispanics involved in elections

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In recent years, issues of minority young-adult political participation have increasingly entered into the national political discussion.

For example, every major election cycle, the media tells tales of the “Sleeping Giant” Hispanic electorate and its potential power to sway national elections — if only it could wake.

However, young Hispanics and other minorities generally register and vote at distressingly low rates. In light of the rapid growth of the young adult population (those aged 18-29) in communities of color, it is ever more important they be included and empowered in Washington state politics.

Unfortunately, in Washington, there are currently few efforts to engage and empower young Hispanics or other young minorities. Research shows the many nonvoters and infrequent voters in these groups can be mobilized to vote at substantial rates via face-to-face or phone canvassing campaigns — “personal methods” that create a conversation between the canvasser and the voter.

However, organizations lack information as to where to target efforts to achieve the greatest impact.

As students in Whitman College’s community-based research program on The State of the State for Washington Latinos this year, we took a substantial step toward filling this gap. Partnering with the Latino Community Fund of Washington, we identified Grant, Franklin, Yakima, and Adams counties, and particular areas within these counties, as the places organizations should focus on to engage young Hispanic voters.

We first conducted a study of current state voting trends by analyzing voter registration lists and turnout data for 12 counties — chosen based on size or proportion of the Hispanic/minority population.

We used Geographic Information Systems mapping software to conduct spatial analysis of voter registration and electoral turnout data. From Walla Walla to Seattle, the Hispanic community is registered to vote at drastically lower rates than non-Hispanics.

Actual voter turnout rates for young adult Hispanic voters paint an even more troubling picture. Of those registered, only half of young adult Hispanics turned out in 2012 compared to 80 percent of the registered population as a whole.

Results from 2013 are even more dismal. Only 10 percent of registered Hispanic young adults voted. This likely means the interests of Hispanic young adults are not being represented in electoral politics to nearly the extent they should be.

In Walla Walla, only 40 percent of adult Hispanics are registered to vote. While Hispanic young adults make up just below 40 percent of the 18-29 population, only 11 percent of this demographic voted in the last presidential election.

So this county, like the state, has significant ground to make up in engaging young Latino communities in electoral politics.

Though every community can benefit from increased participation of its members in the political system, our study identifies Grant, Franklin, Yakima and Adams counties as places with the greatest opportunities to increase Hispanic young adult political participation. These places show a combination of low Hispanic registration rates and low Hispanic young adult turnout rates, but they are also locations where young Hispanics comprise a high proportion of the voting-age population.

Colleges enrolling large proportions of Hispanics, such as Heritage University and Yakima Valley Community College, key industries for young Hispanic employment such as agriculture, accommodation and food services, retail and prison re-entry programs could anchor efforts to bring more young Hispanics into the political system.

In Walla Walla County there are many opportunities to promote political participation of young Hispanics. Mobilization efforts should engage students at Walla Walla Community College; connect with re-entering ex-offenders through the STAR Project; and empower workers in the aforementioned industry sectors.

Increasing mobilization and registration efforts, tailored to these social environments in Walla Walla and throughout Washington can better empower minority young adults.

We see this task not as a question of waking the Hispanic “Sleeping Giant” or any other minority electorates for that matter, but as an opportunity for individuals to redefine how they see themselves and how others see them as effective and legitimate political actors.

Though the research speaks specifically to the situation of minorities and young adults, increasing political engagement is not an issue that solely applies to these groups. Entire communities are best served when everyone contributes in the political system.

Michael Augustine, Class of 2016, is a politics major from Palo Alto, Calif. James Morris-Lent, Class of 2014, is a politics majors from Seattle. Iska Nardie-Warner, Class of 2016, is a politics major from St. Louis.

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