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What the Latino vote means in this November’s election

The Latino vote could be the difference in the race for Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District.

voting booth
While Minnesota is known for its large voter registration and turnout, that enthusiasm to cast a ballot has not been present in the state’s Latino community.
MinnPost file photo by Peter Callaghan

WASHINGTON – After years of filling out paperwork and of waiting, 21-year-old Jenny Martinez, who was born in El Salvador, finally became a U.S. citizen this summer.

Jenny Martinez
Jenny Martinez
Now she is among a growing segment of Minnesota’s population – young Latinos who are registering to vote in much greater numbers than their parents. Those new voters will participate in November’s mid-term elections and may make a difference in some races.

“This will be the first time I will ever vote,” said Martinez, who lives in Apple Valley.  “I really feel it would help the Latino community to have my voice heard.”

While Minnesota is known for its large voter registration and turnout, that enthusiasm to cast a ballot has not been present in the state’s Latino community.

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According to the Minnesota Secretary of State’s office, as of Aug. 18, there were 3,561,815 people registered to vote in Minnesota, a state with a population of about 5.7 million.

Meanwhile, according predictive modeling by Communidades Organizando el Poder y la Acción Latina (COPAL), there are about 65,000 registered Latino voters across Minnesota, a state where Hispanics account for about 5.7% of the population, or about 345,000 people, according to the U.S. Census.

Some Latinos can’t vote because they are not citizens. Others come from countries with corrupt governments and are turned off by politics.

Yet advocates like Ryan Pérez, COPAL’s political campaign manager, are not discouraged by low Latino turnout. They see a growing political strength as increasing numbers of young Latinos like Martinez register to vote. Like other national and state Latino organizations, COPAL has a get-out-the vote drive and a countdown clock on its website that is ticking down – by the second – to the Nov. 8 election.

“While older Latinos may or may not vote, the younger generation is growing up knowing both English and Spanish and are defined by a different experience,” Pérez said.

Minnesota’s Latino population is dominated by Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants. But it also contains Puerto Ricans, like Pérez, Cubans and South and Central Americans.

Different Latino communities have different concerns. And individuals also make political decisions based on personal reasons. Martinez, who immigrated to Minnesota with her mother and older brother when she was about 4 years old, said easing requirements for work permits for fellow Salvadorans and bolstering worker rights in agriculture are her top issues.

Pérez said Minnesota Latinos are also motivated to vote by national concerns, such as jobs, inflation and health care access, but also by the state’s requirement that only citizens are allowed to have drivers’ licenses. While many of Minnesota’s Latinos are citizens or legal residents and can obtain a driver’s license, they have family members and friends who cannot, Pérez said.

That was not always the case. Regardless of status, immigrants in Minnesota were able to obtain drivers’ licenses until 2003, when the law was changed to limit those licenses to people who could prove legal residency or citizenship. The Minnesota state House voted to end the restriction, but the effort died in the state’s GOP-controlled Senate.

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Latino voters have historically supported Democratic candidates more than Republicans. But there are always exceptions – 58% of Cuban registered voters in a 2020 Pew Research poll said they affiliate with or leaned toward the Republican Party, while 38% said they identified with the Democratic Party or leaned Democratic.

A New York TimesSiena College poll taken earlier this month determined that Democrats have maintained their grip on the majority of Latino voters, driven in part by Latino women and the belief that Democrats remained the party of the working class and Republicans are more likely the party of the elite.

The poll also said Hispanic voters are more likely to agree with Democrats on many issues — including immigration, gun policy, and climate. A majority of Latino voters polled – 56% – plan to vote for Democrats this fall, compared with 32% for Republicans.

While the economy was a major concern for the Latinos polled by Siena College and the New York Times, 61% of the respondents said abortion should be legal in all or most cases.

Meanwhile, another survey conducted by FiveThirtyEight found that many of the nation’s Latino voters lack strong ties to either the Democratic or Republican parties because they are first generation or had first-generation parents who were not politically engaged and “didn’t pass along their partisan views.” That makes many of the nation’s Latino voters “persuadables” who are open to both Republican and Democratic political messaging.

Another statistic, from the America’s Society/Council of the Americas: Roughly 11.6 million Latinos are expected to participate in these elections, accounting for a 71% jump since the 2014 midterms.

A potential for impact

In Minnesota, Latinos are concentrated in the Twin Cities with their numbers are growing in south and southeastern Minnesota.

Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-5th, represents the largest number of Latinos (about 72,000), according to Census data compiled for the new districts by Dave’s Redistricting Atlas. Rep. Angie Craig, D-2nd, represents the second largest number of Latinos (54,000), followed by Rep. Brad Finstad, R-1st, who has 51,000 Latinos living in his district, many of them living in Austin, Rochester and Worthington.

But there are Latinos in all of Minnesota’s eight congressional districts. COPAL’s Pérez said they could make a difference in some local races, as well as statewide races where the margin of victory is slim.

Latino votes could also make a difference in congressional races, Pérez said.

“In CD (Congressional District) 1, the potential for impact is clear,” he said.

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That’s because Pérez estimates that there are approximately 9,000 additional registered Latino voters in the 1st Congressional District after the lines were redrawn to adhere to the 2020 Census count.

Pérez pointed out that Finstad won a special election last month to fill former Rep. Jim Hagedorn’s seat by about 4,500 votes, and Hagedorn won that seat in 2018 by about 2,500 votes.

Still, it will take some time before Minnesota’s Latinos have even a fraction of the political clout the growing Latino electorate has in other states, especially California, Texas and Florida.