En español | In casting his first ballot, Rodolfo Villalobos helped push Latino voter turnout to a record 9.7 million in 2008. The retired farm worker and Mexican immigrant became a U.S. citizen the year before the historic election that sent Barack Obama to the White House and ended decades of low Hispanic voter turnout.
Yet, like many Latino voters, Villalobos, 61, isn't sure he'll go to the polls this year, when there are congressional and local races, but no presidential contest. "I want to vote in the big elections, but don't know enough about [this year's] elections," says Villalobos, who lives in Yuma, Arizona. "I have to learn more."
While Latinos could be swing voters in many races this year, the big question is: How many will show up at the polls? Low voter turnout is the norm during midterm elections, especially among minority groups. Yet 2010 is a key election year that will determine whether Democrats keep control of Congress, who will win 37 governorships and the fate of hundreds of local candidates.
And there's a once-a-decade twist: the census. Governors and state legislators elected this year will help decide how district lines for Congress and state legislatures are redrawn in 2012. This year's national census is expected to show that the Latino population has grown substantially, potentially setting up redistricting fights over giving Hispanics what some would consider a fairer representation in Congress.
Despite the high stakes, Gary Segura of Latino Decisions, a political research firm, says Hispanic enthusiasm for voting was at an all-time low earlier this year. In a March poll, only 49 percent of Hispanics surveyed by his organization said they plan to vote in November. Actual turnout is likely to be even lower because people don’t like to tell pollsters they don’t plan to vote, he says.
A Latino Decisions poll showed President Obama’s approval rating among Latinos, while still high, dipped from 73 percent in March to 64 percent in August.
Segura’s latest poll also indicated Hispanic voters say they are more likely to vote for a Democratic candidate (51.5 percent) than a Republican candidate (23.3 percent).
A new Arizona law that would have allowed police to check the immigration status of anyone who is stopped, detained or arrested may also be shaking off some Latino voter apathy, Segura says. The Justice Department successfully challenged the Arizona law in court and was able to block most of its most controversial provisions.
Latino Decisions determined 64 percent of Latino registered voters opposed the Arizona law, and 66 percent supported the Justice Department’s challenge.
For Villalobos, the Arizona law was a wake-up call that may lead him to the polls. He opposes it and calls it “anti-Hispanic.”
But the law has not had the same effect on non-Latino voters. According to a May 2010 Roper poll, only 20 percent of non-Latinos opposed the Arizona law.
A Latino Decisions poll, also conducted in May, showed that 59 percent of Arizona's Latinos hold the GOP responsible for the law's passage, but 33 percent said Republicans and Democrats are equally responsible. "Latinos see themselves as targeted by Republicans, but they are not giving Democrats a free pass," Segura says.
Among Hispanics, the law has spurred renewed calls for comprehensive immigration reform, something Obama promised to tackle in his first year in office. He urged Congress to quickly approve reform, but Democratic leaders failed to take up the controversial issue in an election year.
So will all this lead Latinos to the ballot box? While midterm elections are usually driven by local issues, Arizona's controversial law could provoke a political "spillover" to other states, says Evan Bacalao, director of civic engagement for the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. "And there are a lot of places where Latino votes can make a difference."
Hispanics may decide elections in Florida — where Cuban American Republican Marco Rubio is running for the U.S. Senate — and California, where Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer is facing challenger Carly Fiorina, former Hewlett-Packard CEO and chair.
There are also tight races in New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada and New York, states with high percentages of Hispanic voters. Like many Hispanic advocacy groups, NALEO plans get-out-the-vote efforts in those and other states, including public service announcements on registering and getting to the polls, phone calls to Latinos who rarely vote and a bilingual voter information hotline (888-VE-Y-VOTA). The National Council of La Raza, which spearheaded a boycott of Arizona in response to its new law, also is mobilizing the Latino electorate this year.
Political parties are also stepping up. The Democratic National Committee is spending $50 million to entice the 15 million first-time voters who helped elect Obama in 2008 — many of them Latinos like Villalobos — to turn up at the polls again in November. The committee's Vote 2010 effort includes house parties, canvassing and phone banks.
The Republican National Committee has no national campaign, says spokesman Doug Heye, but the RNC is helping individual candidates reach out to Hispanics. And RNC Chairman Michael Steele is trying to foster relations with the community by meeting with conservative Latino organizations such as The Latino Coalition and Hispanic chambers of commerce, Heye says.
Lety Garcia, 56, needs no get-out-the-vote campaigns for motivation. Low voter turnout among Latinos hurts the Hispanic community by eroding its political power, says the manager of a fire equipment company in San Diego. While Garcia thinks mistrust of government could be keeping some Latinos away from the polls, "voting is a privilege we have and we should use it," she says.