Latino Organizers Work to Mobilize Georgia Voters Ahead of Senate Runoffs

Originally published in The Intercept on November 16, 2020.
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ALL EYES ARE on Georgia and its upcoming U.S. Senate runoffs, races that will clarify which party will control the chamber for Joe Biden’s first two years as president. For Democrats interested in flipping the Senate blue, organizers stress that there is no viable path without mobilizing Latino voters, who now make up a decisive 5 percent of the state’s electorate and were key to running up Democratic margins in the presidential race. Biden won Georgia by about 14,000 votes, and exit poll data showed that Latinos there voted for him over Donald Trump, 62 to 37 percent.

Latinos broke for Democratic Senate candidates, too, though exit poll data suggests the split was more narrow than in the presidential contest, with about 52 percent of Latinos breaking for Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff, and a combined 57 percent of Latinos breaking for Democratic candidates Raphael Warnock and Matt Lieberman. Though Latinos represent a significant portion of the electorate, they have rarely been targeted with the same focused energy that candidates have dedicated to mobilizing other groups, a price Democrats might pay in the upcoming runoffs.

Political leaders “don’t do outreach, they don’t have Spanish-speaking mailers or ads that are resonant with our community,” said Susi Durán, the Georgia state director for Poder Latinx, a group focused on building Latino political power. “They’ll throw in a few Spanish key words, maybe a few Spanish-speaking hit songs and Latin artists, but they don’t give us anything of substance or anything to vote for.”

Durán’s group made 219,000 calls to Latino voters in Georgia leading up to the November 3 election and ensured that every phone-banking session was 100 percent bilingual. “Language accessibility is one of the biggest things to focus on, and you’d think that would be common sense across the political world, but it just doesn’t happen,” she said. “It makes such a big difference, and Latino voters are often really surprised and appreciative to get information from one of their own.” Durán said Poder Latinx is planning to make 300,000 more calls for the January runoffs.

Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, noted that Latino turnout has been rapidly increasing and even outperforming national Latino participation rates in 2016 and 2018. Yet while much attention has been given to the efforts led by 2018 gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams in helping to register more than 800,000 new voters in Georgia, and more than 240,000 Latinos were registered to vote in Georgia leading up to the general election, about 137,000 eligible Latinos were not registered.

Organizers and activists are grappling with some of the more unique challenges of reaching Latino voters. One national survey released on November 4 found that 47 percent of Latinos in the U.S. said they were neither contacted by any Democratic or Republican party representative during the 2020 cycle nor by any independent community organization. On election night, Democrats were caught off guard by the surge in Latino turnout for Trump in South Texas and Florida.

Maria del Rosario Palacios, an organizer in Georgia and chair of the state Democratic Party’s Latino caucus, said one obstacle to reaching potential voters has been a deprioritization of the kinds of digital platforms Latinos are most likely to be using. “Who is doing WhatsApp electoral outreach?” she asked. “Nobody. WhatsApp is a big deal for Latinos.” Palacios also noted that many Latinos are more likely to have pay-as-you-go phone plans compared to other voters, and so may be less likely to answer calls from unknown numbers. She also critiqued national pollsters for not asking Latinos questions in conversational, accessible language that could better gauge where voters stand.

One of Palacios’s main mobilization strategies has been to distribute political literature and organize voter outreach in partnership with major businesses, grocery stores, and laundromats that Latinos regularly frequent. “There hasn’t been a lot of centralized efforts historically,” she said, though she acknowledged that things have been evolving since the surge in voter registrations over the last few years. “2018 really changed how we did politics in Georgia, so we’ve been working on it.”

Overlapping with the U.S Senate runoffs are other races in Georgia where Latino activists have been getting galvanized. On December 1, Deborah Gonzalez, a Democrat, is facing a runoff for district attorney in the Western Judicial Circuit, which includes Athens-Clarke County — where the University of Georgia is — and Oconee County. Gonzalez would be the first Latino DA in Georgia history and is running on a platform of criminal justice reform, including ending death penalty prosecutions, declining to prosecute low-level marijuana possession, and reducing the use of cash bail. She is running against James Chafin, a nonpartisan candidate.

“I can remember the first time I ever ran for office, I was told, you’re not Black, you’re not white, you can’t win here,” recalled Gonzalez, who formerly served in the state legislature. She said she’s proud of the diverse coalition her campaign has built and that her candidacy has been backed by the Latino Victory Fund and Galeo.

One challenge for Georgia organizers is that unlike in the general election, voters can’t cast their runoff votes for district attorney or the state legislature and the U.S. Senate together. Gonzalez said it can be frustrating how even with all the national Democratic money and energy being funneled into Georgia for Ossoff’s and Warnock’s campaigns, little has been trickling down to races like hers.

“When people say all eyes are on Georgia, well, we’re not getting that attention, and sometimes there’s a little shortsightedness,” she said. “We don’t need the millions. We can do a lot with $10, 20, 30,000, and that wouldn’t take away anything from them.” Gonzalez emphasized that there need to be Democrats as district attorneys, public service commissioners, and state legislators, and the party shouldn’t discount the momentum that can come from winning those races. “Democrats need wins, it makes people feel good,” she said. “You want those wins heading into January. [The party] tends to only think about the big goal, but underneath those are the down-ballot races that  make important local decisions and keep those people on top.”

Both nationally and in Georgia, one of the most important issues to Latino voters is Covid-19 relief aid. Latinos are falling ill and dying from the coronavirus at disproportionate rates, and in Georgia, Latino poultry workers have gotten sick at much faster rates than other workers. Moreover, the federal government denied stimulus checks to families in which at least one member of the household was undocumented. In Georgia, that affected 488,000 residents living in so called mixed-status families, including 176,000 children and spouses who are U.S citizens or green card holders.

Local groups like Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, Galeo, Mijente, the Latin American Association, and Latino Community Fund have been pressing political leaders to take Latinos’ needs more seriously for years. Activists and organizers are focusing now on mobilizing Latino voters to cast their ballots again in the runoff, to combat misinformation from the right, and to register the thousands of Latino voters who are turning 18 between November 4 and December 7. According to exit polls, young Latino voters broke even harder for Biden, with 18 to 29-year-olds backing him over Trump 74 to 25 percent.

A spokesperson from the Warnock campaign said it has been working to ensure that its website’s issue pages are available in Spanish, as well as developing “talking points tailored to Latino communities.” In addition, the Warnock campaign said it hired a Latinx coordinator, purchased ads in the Latino print market, and hosted a single Latinos for Warnock meet-and-greet and a text/phone-bank volunteer event for Spanish speakers. The Ossoff campaign did not return a request for comment.

Palacios said she believes the Latino grassroots organizations “have been getting a lot of love” since the election. “I’ve seen Google Doc after Google Doc listing some of the amazing on-the-ground work of Latino organizers, even beyond electoral politics,” she said. What Palacios worries about are Latino voters who might be deterred from voting by mail again due to issues with their absentee ballots during the general election. According to the U.S. Election Project, 34,676 Latinos in Georgia voted by mail, and 71,176 Latinos voted early in-person.

“The No. 1 outreach I was getting on Election Day was from Latinos who had to cure their ballot because they got notices that their signature on their absentee ballot was off or something else,” Palacios said. (Just 71 Latino absentee ballots were ultimately rejected in Georgia, according to the U.S. Election Project.) Durán said some of her phone bankers have had to focus on addressing misinformation, like voters who say they were told that they were only eligible to vote in one election and not in the runoff.

Activists and organizers stress that while Latinos in Georgia are no monolith, it’s important to recognize that many Latinos see voting as a collective act: a ballot cast not just for themselves but also for their family and community. “Whether the voters were formerly undocumented or their parents were or their friends, I think for us, when we go out to vote, more uniquely than other folks, we don’t just vote for ourselves,” said Palacios.

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