Carolina Ortiz hands out a breakfast sandwich to a voter in Minneapolis' Longfellow Park during early voting on Oct. 27, 2020. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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On a freezing Tuesday morning exactly one week before Election Day, a half-dozen organizers with Communities Organizing Latinx Power and Action (COPAL) set up a booth outside a just-opened early voting center in south Minneapolis’ Longfellow Park.

As a long line of voters trickled over to the recreation center to cast their ballots, COPAL organizers stood adjacent to them on a grassy field away from the entrance. They blared traditional songs like “Guantanamera” and served free tamales, breakfast sandwiches, coffee, and hot chocolate to anyone who wanted it. In the days leading up to this morning, COPAL promoted this event as one of many ways to get the local Latino community to vote in this year’s election.

Over the two hours that COPAL staffers manned the tent, some 50 voters, about half of them Latino, stopped by after casting their ballots. The check-ins alone probably don’t indicate the level of Latino election interest in Minnesota this year. But organizers said the important work really happened in the weeks and months leading up to this moment. 

COPAL planned blitzes like this all the way up to Tuesday; the group also provided 60 hours of election-related information to local Spanish-language radio.

“We’re working every day up until Election Day because many of our lives depend on it,” said Carolina Ortiz, a spokesperson for COPAL. “I am a DACA recipient, so this election will determine what the future looks like. I feel like we’re really working day and night making sure we’re doing everything we possibly can.” 

Whether efforts like these will bear fruit is another question. Nationwide, Latinos, with 32 million eligible voters, are projected to be the largest block of voters of color in this year’s election. But just 48 percent of Latino voters across the country turned out during the last presidential election, according to U.S. Census numbers—similar to Latino vote tallies in the 2012 and 2008 presidential elections. Historically, Latino voter turnout trails that for Black, Asian, and white voters. 

Latino organizers say this year is different. They argue that four years of anti-immigrant policies and racist rhetoric under President Donald J. Trump, plus the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their community, will motivate more voters to cast their ballots.

COPAL, for example, started phone banking in May and since August has held weekly events encouraging voter registration. And Unidos, a local advocacy group run by immigrants, has a staff of 30 on the ground and hitting the phones to persuade Latinos in Minnesota to vote for Democratic Party candidates. 

In total, COPAL organizers say they convinced 15,000 Latino people in Minnesota to commit to voting this election—more than twice the number that made that pledge four years ago. Along the way, they’ve hosted countless conversations about how to use absentee ballots and how to vote early—information that isn’t always easily accessible in Spanish.

Unidos executive director Emilia Gonzalez Avalos said her organization is running the biggest Latino turnout operation in the state, having reached thousands of Latinos and helped to register at least 300 new voters. 

How many Latino voters are there in Minnesota? Good question. 

Gauging Latino voter turnout in previous Minnesota elections has proved an especially tough task. The Secretary of State’s office, for example, does not collect information on a registered voter’s race or ethnicity. 

But estimates from independent groups suggest Minnesota’s Latino voting environment may mirror the national one. According to data compiled by Minnesota Compass, a project of Wilder Research that collects demographic data, Latinos represent the state’s least likely voting community. In the 2012 election, 46 percent of eligible Latino voters cast ballots.

According to this data, 2012 saw the state’s highest Latino voter turnout. In that year, 46 percent of Minnesota’s 96,000 voting-age Latinos cast more than 44,000 voters. Four years later, the turnout rate dropped to 37 percent, though the voting age population jumped to 136,000. But Wilder’s own researchers warn that their numbers come from small sample sizes. (And underlining that uncertainty, Unidos quibbles with some of these estimates.)

For 2020, Pew Research Center puts the number of Minnesota’s eligible Latino voters at 127,000. 

Explanations for the lagging Latino vote are manifold, Gonzalez Avalos said. For one, the Latino population itself is young and growing. In Minnesota, she explained, both Democratic and Republican politicians have historically catered to the state’s majority white population, believing that the path to victory runs through them. 

What’s different today is how many younger people are old enough to vote. Many come from mixed immigration-status families—for example, undocumented parents with children born here. Rosita Balch, a Minneapolis resident who works for Hennepin County and has been involved in activism, recalled how she helped register three first-time Latino voters who visited her home the other day. Two of them just became citizens and the other just turned 18. 

First-time voters like these feel strongly motivated to vote, Balch said—not necessarily for Biden, but against Trump.

“Not everybody is happy with the choice we have,” she said. “But we have to get Trump out of the White House.” 

Indeed, Biden struggled with Latino voters earlier this year during the Democratic presidential primary. He lost big to Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in states with sizable Latino populations like Nevada and California. 

Polls since then suggest Biden leads Trump among Latino voters—in most places by a wide margin. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Telemundo poll published just a few days before the election found Biden leading Trump among Latino voters by 62-29 percent. 

Sanders and New York Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio Cortez, both of whom emerged on the national scene in recent years, are the most popular politicians among young Latino voters, Gonzalez Avalos said. She’s predicting that their popularity will help attract young progressive Latinos to the polls this year. 

The chance to vote drives citizenship

All of these factors make Latino organizers in Minnesota more confident that voter turnout will be bigger this time. 

One thing that could make this true is the sheer amount of money and resources behind such efforts. Unidos is getting funding from the Win Justice PAC, a national coalition aimed at people of color and historically marginalized voters which includes Planned Parenthood and the Service Employees International Union. 

Unidos’ voting initiative this election season far surpasses the group’s similar effort from 2016, which Gonzalez Avalos said employed five people instead of 30.

Latinos have also now dealt with four years of Trump “scapegoating our humanity for his own personal gain,” which she said is different from the threats his candidacy posed to the population before he became president.

“Four years ago, I don’t think anybody thought we would have that person as a president,” she said. “We could not fathom the idea of having someone who is such a vile representation of the country as chief of the country.” 

Early indications suggest that Minnesota’s Latino voters heavily favor Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. Earlier this year, Unidos surveyed around 5,000 Latino voters in the state and asked about their preferred candidate. Just 5 to 10 percent of the people contacted identified as Trump supporters, Gonzalez Avalos said, with the rest backing Biden. 

Will all of these respondents turn out to vote? That won’t be known until after the election, Gonzalez Avalos said.

Outside of activist circles, some local Latinos are seeing the effects of the last four years prompt friends and family members who have never voted before to do so this time. 

Raquel Barrientos, a third-generation Mexican American who lives in St. Paul, said Trump’s presidency accelerated her husband’s plan to complete his citizenship process, which he did recently. While her husband, who grew up in Mexico, is excited to vote against Trump, Barrientos said he was less excited to vote down the ballot. 

“I don’t know if he’s going to be a regular voter in every election—just like most voters, who  barely vote for president,” she said.

Are her Latino friends and family any more excited and motivated to vote this election compared to previous elections? Barrientos said it’s hard to tell. That’s mainly because, like many families, she and her husband have stayed home and avoided social gatherings during the pandemic. 

Barrientos said she’s sure about one thing: The pandemic has made voting in elections, whether through absentee or early vote, easier than ever before. 

“You cannot have the excuse of, ‘I’m too tired from work, I don’t have time before work, I couldn’t get there in time,’” she said. “There are none of those excuses now.” 

Both she and her husband have already filled out their ballots. They plan to drop them off at an election center before Tuesday.

Joey Peters

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. His work has appeared in Reuters, Public Radio International, Columbia Journalism Review, KFAI Radio, the Pioneer Press, City Pages, MinnPost and more. He previously...