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Getting Latinos to the Polls

AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana

This post has been updated.

It’s a windy autumn Saturday at the Bladensburg Festival del Rio, an annual event for environmental groups to entertain and educate Latinos about environmental issues.

There are tents set up with different activities for kids, a live band, and kayaking rides on the Anacostia. I’m here to ask Latinos voters how interested they are in the upcoming midterm election. Bayardo Lune, sits in the shade about to enjoy his lunch. He came to the US 20 years ago from Mexico and says he’s not sure if he’s going to vote on Tuesday.

“Now in the midterm election, I don’t know. If I have a chance I may go vote,” says Lune. “But in the more important presidential elections, I will always vote.”

Lune says he thinks presidential elections are more important, and that local politicians are only worried about votes and not issues.

“American politicians look for the Hispanic vote, and that’s it,” Lune says. “And we notice it.”

Latinos may be the fastest growing minority in the US and Maryland, but it appears they don’t show up in growing numbers at the polls. It’s difficult to nail down exact voter turnout demographics from previous elections, but according to politicians, Latino turnout tends to lag behind other minorities.

“It’s devastating you know it’s devastating,” says former Democratic Delegate, Maurice Morales from Montgomery County. “And I can tell you as a Latina elected official I did everything I could when I first ran to engage Latino voters.”

She says it’s Lune’s kind of thinking that made her lose her primary.

“My paid consultants, in their wisdom were basically telling me in their wisdom, Ms. Morales if you spend your time speaking to Latino voters, I’m sorry but you’re just not going to win,” says Morales.

In her last 2014 race, Morales says she had to run two parallel campaigns. One was for her well-informed voters during the day, and the second was for her Latino and Filipino voters at night while door knocking.

“It was difficult it was really difficult,” says Marisol Johnson.

She says door knocking was a small attempt at getting Latino voters out, but she says her six week push to run as a Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor with Valerie Ervin from Baltimore County was not supported.

“I reached out to CASA, I reached out to the sources I had, and being the first Latina on a statewide ballot at that level, I didn’t get the reception or the help that I needed,” says Johnson.

Even in southeast Baltimore, home to a large Latino population, where City Councilman Zeke Cohen ran in 2016, Latino voters don’t show up to the polls as often as other white and African American voters.

“Latino folks across the board were under represented,” says Cohen.

Cohen says unlike his six other Democratic opponents he tried not to take the regular politician’s route of solely targeting those who vote regularly.

“As Democrats, as folks who seek to represent under served people we really have to do a better job at engaging with those who have not had access to the ballot box,” says Cohen.

Antonio Ugues, a professor of political science at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, says while the traditional route of garnering voters is a winnable strategy.

“There are other untapped sources of potential voters like young voters and more diverse voters that can potentially serve as a basis for winning an election,” says Ugues.

That’s how Delegate Joseline Peña-Melnyk, whose district includes parts of Prince Georges and Anne Arundel counties, says she runs her campaigns. She goes to soccer fields and churches and places other candidates might not.

“I go to las bodegas,” says Peña-Melnyk. “And I ask for permission to stand outside. And I come out with a little table and I make sure all my literature is translated.”

Peña-Melnyk says part of the reason for low voter turnout among Latinos is they may be scared.

“They’re not used to voting in this society because they come from countries where voting could get you killed, and you distrust the government,” says Peña-Melnyk

But, she says unlike some of her colleagues in the General Assembly she knows Latinos are quickly becoming the largest minority group in Maryland and the US.

“And I believe strongly with every fiber of my being that if you invest in this population now, they’re yours because we tend to be faithful and loyal,” says Peña-Melnyk.

Latino Democrats and outreach organizations raising money for gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous have requested that the campaign use the money they raised for outreach to Latino voters.

“So we’re getting smart now,” says Peña-Melnyk. “Where I used to support you before, we decided you’re going to invest in our community.”

Jealous campaign officials say they’ve allocated $100,000 to Latino voter outreach.

Incumbent Republican Larry Hogan’s campaign failed to respond to multiple requests for comment.

Despite the anti-immigrant rhetoric coming from the White House, Delegate Kathy Szeliga, the House minority whip, says she rejects the idea that the GOP is anti-immigrant.

“We are finding immigrants to be very embracing of our philosophy and principles, and things that we hold dear,” says Szeliga. “Lots of small business owners. Immigrants come to this country to live the American dream and our party is very supportive of that.”

And with only four days left till Election Day, Anne Arundel County Executive Steve Schuh, a Republican, released a Spanish language ad on 107.9 FM El Zol on Friday.

"Our Latino citizens are an important part of our community and the electorate, and the County Executive wanted to reach them directly during his campaign," said a spokesperson for Schuh.

The ad will air run through Tuesday.

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