The message behind Texas’ Latino vote

HOUSTON – During the November election, Latinos in Texas helped former Vice President Joe Biden secure his bid for the White House. Many community organizers and grassroots organizations said the Latino vote also sent another message, “Don’t take our votes for granted.”

Community organizer, professor, author and co-founder of the El Librotraficante movement Tony Diaz has spent decades working to get Latinos to the polls. He said the work needed to motivate the community to vote isn’t because Latinos aren’t paying attention.

“Both political parties are not understanding our values and our interests,” Diaz said. “Until politicians realize how to reach us and how to earn our vote, it’s not going to happen.”

In fact, a non-partisan study by the Texas Organizing Project Education Fund delved into the issue of why Latinos lag behind other ethnic groups when it comes to voting rates. According to the latest census information, Latinos make up nearly 40% of Texas’ population and account for 1-in-3 eligible voters in the state.

“What that showed is that people don’t see themselves reflected in our political system,” TOP director of electoral strategy Crystal Zermeno said in reference to the study.

However, Zermeno said, this doesn’t mean the Latino community isn’t engaged

“We are seeing a tremendous uptick in participation,” Zermeno said.

Zermeno said another problem with engagement is many Latinos live in communities politicians consider “safe” for one party or another so they rarely take the time to visit.

“You wouldn’t even know there was an election in five days because there was no political sign, there was no literature because they’re really what we call vote deserts,” said Zermeno.

According to the research firm, Latino Decisions, 67% of Latinos in Texas voted for Biden. Still, Latinos voting majority Democrat is not a foregone conclusion.

“The Latino vote has always been kind of nuanced,” said Michael Adams, PhD., chair of Texas Southern University’s political science department. “You cannot typecast one particular group and I think that’s where the pollsters and the analysts tend to overlook that.”

Adams points to the vote in the Rio Grande Valley. Willacy, Starr, Cameron and Hidalgo counties have a majority Latino population and all four carried Biden. However, the support for Biden was down anywhere from 9% to more than 20% from the number of people who voted for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2016, according to data from the Texas Secretary of State’s office.

Then there is the case of Zapata county with a majority Latino population of just under 15,000. According to county judge Joe Rathmell, for the first time in 100 years, the county carried a Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump. However, the county did support Democratic challenger, Mary “MJ” Hegar over Republican incumbent John Cornyn.

Rathmell said many of his constituents work in oil and gas and get nervous when Democrats talk about phasing out fossil fuels.

“I think it came down to jobs, I mean, economy and jobs,” said Rathmell.

Other community organizers see what happened in these counties as further evidence of politicians on both sides of the aisle not reaching the Latino community.

“It means there is a swathe of our population that is up for grabs and it’s about who spends the money on us, who spends the time talking to us,” said founder of JOLT, Christina Tzintzun-Ramirez. “You will often find campaigns and candidates spending money on our community at the very end of an election cycle.”

JOLT works to engage more Latinos in the political process, especially younger voters.

“Often candidates don’t come and speak to us about themselves or propose the policies that really address the inequities that we see in our community,” said Tzintzun-Ramirez. “That kind of poor investment leads to low outcomes in Latino voters.”

Diaz further argues many politicians still stereotype Latinos by thinking single-issues like immigration will be a motivator.

“I think, too, both parties dialed in the Latino vote for this election,” said Diaz.

Diaz said gaining Latino support has a lot to do with how the community is approached.

“You would sound ridiculous if a campaign said, ‘We need you to get the white vote,’” Diaz said. “There’s a very sophisticated way to break down how Anglos vote. In fact, that’s an industry, you could even say that’s a science. On the flip side, there’s not an articulated approach to the Latino vote.”

The election-eve poll from the research firm Latino Decisions also ranked priorities in the Latino community based on answers. The pandemic was highest, followed by jobs and economy, health care costs, racial discrimination, education and immigration reform.