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Arizona volunteers rally to increase Latino voting power

Promise Arizona volunteer Teodora Luna, 20, (left) talks with Phoenix resident Maria Velazquez, 35, about registering to vote.

Every day, about 100 volunteers span out from the Promise Arizona office in central Phoenix to register Latino voters, hoping to change the dynamics of politics in Arizona.

Between May and late September, the volunteers had registered 11,374 voters. By the Oct. 9 registration deadline for the November election, they hope to enlist 5,000 more.

Promise Arizona is one of a growing number of groups dedicated to increasing voter participation by Latinos in the state. Combined, they expect to increase voter registration among Latinos in Arizona this year by 53 percent over 2008.

Even so, the organizations face a difficult question: Will their efforts really make a difference in a state where voter turnout among Latinos has been consistently low — and where advocates have failed to prevent the Legislature from passing laws considered detrimental to their interests?

The number of potential voters who have been registered this year is a fraction of the nearly half a million unregistered Latinos of voting age in Arizona. In 2010, 451,000 eligible Latino adults remained unregistered, the William C. Velasquez Institute, a nonprofit research foundation, reported. That amounts to about 32 percent of the voting age population.

Nevertheless, representatives of Promise Arizona and other voting advocacy groups remain optimistic for a number of reasons. Perhaps most importantly, they say, a network of young volunteers in their late teens and early 20s provides a foundation that will lead to small changes this year, but much bigger ones in the decades to come.

“The question is what will be the impact not only today, but in the future,” said Petra Falcon, executive director of Promise Arizona.

More than 1,500 volunteers have contributed to the group’s efforts, she noted, making it possible to have 100 volunteers in the field each day. Young people have reached out to homes, churches and schools and have taken ownership of voter outreach efforts in their neighborhoods, she said.

The hope is that before long, the volunteers will generate enough enthusiasm in the rapidly growing Latino community to elect officials sympathetic to the cause of Promise Arizona and its sister organizations, which now number about 10.

“We need to have policymakers, lawmakers that will give us good laws in the community, not bad laws,” Falcon said.

• • •

The “bad law” she and others refer to is Senate Bill 1070, the most notable of a series of anti-illegal immigration bills advocated by former state Sen. Russell Pearce and others in the Legislature.

Promise Arizona had its roots in that law, passed by the Legislature in 2010. First, the group held a 103-day vigil in response to SB1070.

Then the organization turned to broader goals, including the formation of a statewide organization to increase civic involvement and voter participation among Latinos. Promise Arizona created a model for civic involvement, recruited hundreds of young Phoenix residents and provided them with opportunities to move up into more responsible positions within the group.

One of the recent recruits is Joel Juarez, 19.

“I’ve always been told I was a leader,” he said. “I liked the program, and decided to try it out.”

He learned about SB1070 and its potential effects on his family. One lesson was that the lives of American citizens often are closely entwined with people living in the country illegally. He was motivated in part by the fate of an uncle who was not a U.S. citizen and was deported after being pulled over for a broken taillight.

“He was the life of the party in the family. Everything changed when he was gone. No more parties, no more cookouts,” Juarez said. “One day he was here, the next day he wasn’t.”

He said his experience as a volunteer has changed his point of view.

“I never really cared about voting. Now, being here, my mindset has changed,” he said.

Similarly, Julie Tennison, 19, said she began volunteering last year after her best friend was deported.

“Something was wrong with her car. She got pulled over. It tore me up because that was my best friend. I didn’t know what to do without her,” Tennison said.

She said she has not heard from her friend since. Meanwhile, she began working her way up within the ranks of Promise Arizona.

“I actually fell in love with it,” she said.

She has progressed from being a volunteer to having a paying job inputting voter registration data.

Tomas Robles, a deputy field director for the organization, said the group’s efforts have begun to pay off. Many more young Latinos have become involved in politics. Pearce was recalled in a campaign that included help from Promise Arizona. Daniel Valenzuela was elected to the Phoenix City Council after a group of students known as Team Awesome helped bring about a huge increase in voter turnout. And former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona has a chance to win a U.S.

Senate seat in his campaign against Republican Congressman Jeff Flake.

“We’re here fighting the fight,” Robles said. “They’re tired of being looked at as a group that doesn’t matter.”

He cited the emergence of potential political leaders such as Raquel Teran, who barely lost to Sen. Robert Meza in the Democratic primary for the state Senate in District 30, representing parts of west Phoenix.

Falcon said volunteers will continue to be active after the registration deadline, knocking on doors to remind people to vote.

Along with other organizations, her group hopes to contact more than

30,000 voters before Election Day to encourage them to vote, she said.

• • •

Leaders such as Falcon frequently point to a recent report by the Morrison Institute of Public Policy at Arizona State University that forecast a substantial increase in political clout among Latinos in the coming decades The report, Arizona’s Emerging Latino Vote, came out in August and was written by Bill Hart, a senior policy analyst at the Institute, and E.C. Hedberg, a faculty associate in the ASU College of Public Programs.

The report said that regardless of the results of this November’s elections, “the impact of the Hispanic vote in Arizona seems certain to grow.”

It noted that Arizona’s Latino population is growing much faster than that of non-Hispanic whites. That trend is expected to continue indefinitely and to have an important effect on politics in the state within the next two decades, the report concluded.

“Virtually all of Arizona’s large population of Latino children and adolescents are U.S. citizens; they will grow up and many will vote.

If past behavior is any guide, most will register as either independents or Democrats,” Hart and Hedberg wrote.

But they cautioned that the changes do not mean Arizona will become dominated by Democrats anytime soon. Although Latinos tend to lean Democratic, it’s likely that a big increase in the number of independent voters will overshadow the growth of Latino Democrats, the report concluded.

It cited data indicating that regardless of which party has the most influence, Hispanics will be a much bigger portion of the electorate:

The number of Latinos over the age of 19 is expected to increase from

25 percent of Arizona’s population in 2010 to 35 percent in 2020.

Meanwhile, organizations in Arizona are pushing not only to register Latino voters, but to get people to the polls.

The Arizona office of Mi Familia Vota, a national organization, is emphasizing early, mail-in voting, said Francisco Heredia, the organization’s state director. Mi Familia Vota has registered more than 4,000 Latino voters during the current drive and has contacted about 14,000 people on the state’s early voting list, with an eventual goal of reaching 20,000 in Maricopa, Pima and Pinal counties before Election Day.

“More and more are voting early,” he said, saying that is an encouraging trend for local school board and council elections as well as state and national ones. “The hope is that we set folks up to be consistent voters.”

The organization expects that more Latino voters than ever will cast ballots this year.

“We’re optimistic that we’ll have a voice this year,” he said.

Still, the biggest impact is expected to occur in the future. Despite all the registration efforts, Heredia noted that Latinos currently make up only 17 percent to 18 percent of voters in Arizona. The real power will come when that number climbs above 20 percent, he said.

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