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Q&A: NALEO's Arturo Vargas on the "don't vote" ad and getting Latinos to the polls

At a polling place in San Francisco, November 2008
At a polling place in San Francisco, November 2008
Photo by Terry Chay/Flickr (Creative Commons)

It's been the most outrageous political story of the week so far: Television ads produced by a GOP-affiliated 527 group called Latinos for Reform that, in the most direct way possible, urged Latinos not to vote. “Yes, you heard right," the voiceover in Spanish went. "Don’t vote.”

The logic espoused in the ads, produced in Spanish and English, went something like this: If you're disappointed by a lack of progress on immigration reform, then send a message to politicians by, well, simply not voting.

The group that produced the ads, which were set to air this week in Nevada, is led by Robert De Posada, a longtime GOP operative who is a former director of Hispanic affairs for the Republican National Committee, a former Bush appointee, and an occasional Univision political analyst. Since the story began making the rounds early Tuesday, the spots have drawn outrage from Latinos and Democrats alike, who have blasted them as a cynical attempt by a Republican front group to keep Latino voters from the polls (assuming they were to vote for Democrats, although not all Latinos do). De Posada has said that he paid the Spanish-language Univision network $80,000 begin airing the spots.

Univision anounced that it would not air the ads on Tuesday, after the story broke.

Some of those most infuriated by the "don't vote" spots are those working to get just the opposite message to Latinos come election time. This includes Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Elected and Appointed Officials. Based in Los Angeles, NALEO has a leadership role in efforts to get Latinos to the polls, working with the National Council of La Raza and a handful of media companies (including Univision) in a joint voter and naturalization outreach campaign called "Ya Es Hora" (Now is the Time.)

Vargas discussed his take on the "don't vote" ads and on the task of reaching Latino voters, which presents its own challenges, even without advertising to discourage them.

M-A: You've referred to the ads in a statement as “the height of cynicism.” I’d like to hear more about how the ads struck you.

Vargas: I thought it was cynical because it was using whatever message it could come up with to suppress people’s votes, as in "At whatever cost, at whatever expense, I am going to try to keep these people from being heard."

It seems they are trying to tap into this sense of frustration about the lack of progress (on immigration reform). In many ways, it is the same type of strategy as the people who were calling for a boycott of the U.S. Census. It was the same kind of notion: Don’t participate so you can send a message. Are you really telling people to be irrelevant and impotent as a way to make a difference? I think people are a little smarter than that.

M-A: Are there particular vulnerabilities among Latino voters that you think these ads were exploiting? A mistrust of government by first-generation immigrants because of negative experiences with government back home?

Vargas: The vulnerability is mostly with the second and third generation Latinos, who think the system is against them, who think nothing changes when they vote, that politicians come and leave.

The naturalized citizens are more likely to vote than those born here. It is the first generation that still has this sense of optimism and hope. I don’t buy the whole notion that because of their experiences in other countries, they don’t trust government. They have bought into their U.S. citizenship. They are in a different place.

In the work we have been doing for the past ten years, in immigrant communities, getting them to become citizens, we’ve asked people why they are applying for citizenship, and they say, “I want to vote, because I’m mad and I want to express myself.”

We are talking about a population that is pretty savvy, and I attribute that to the quality of reporting the Spanish language media has been doing. In terms of people who are consuming Spanish language media, I would think they are better informed members of the voting electorate than people who get their information from English language media.

M-A: The head of the group behind the "don't vote" spots has portrayed the message in the ads an earnest one in interviews, the result of his being fed up with both parties. What do you think?

Vargas: I don’t buy it. He didn’t say he wanted to punish the Republicans. Maybe I’m wrong, but I thought that was another reason why it was cynical, that they were using this method to try to have a partisan outcome.

M-A: Assuming that Latinos would cast votes for Democratic candidates?

Vargas: That was his assumption, exactly. (But) they are not a solid voting bloc. They are a true swing electorate. Savvy campaign managers know that. Whitman knows she is not going to get 60 percent of the Latino vote. She doesn’t need it to win. But she needs 35 percent. People understand that.

Latinos, I’m sorry, they are not a stupid electorate. If you look at how Latinos have behaved in previous elections, they have crossed party lines, and they will not always vote for the Hispanic candidate. After the Gray Davis recall, Latinos flocked to Schwarzenegger, though Bustamante was one of the options.

M-A: What are the challenges to getting Latinos out to the polls in the first place? And why don’t as many Latinos vote as there are those who could?

Vargas: If we had all the answers, we’d have 100 percent turnout. I think there are a lot of things we need to overcome, lots of issues for different people. For the second generation Latinos, it is the American political cynicism. As a democracy, we don’t participate as the other democracies do. We are pretty bad in terms of our participation. Native-born second and third-generation Latinos feel disenfranchised in the political system. It is a political system that perpetuates that sense of disconnect.

The first generation, they are less of a challenge. That is where we have to be making the most impact. We want to get them into that likely voter category.

It kills me: There are 19 million Latinos eligible to vote, and we project that only 6.5 million are going to vote. This is something that we have worked on year in and year out. What does it take?

We know what it takes for a person to naturalize. We've done research and demonstrated the obstacles. People don’t feel a sense of security in the English language skills. People don't have enough access to adult education courses so they can prepare themselves. Second, it is expensive. It's (almost) $700 to apply. Third, though in many respects that has been taken care of for us, is a lack of urgency. Traditionally, people have said, "Yes, I'll get around to it, but there's not much difference in my life if I don't become a citizen because I'm a legal permanent resident." This whole immigration debacle over the last 20 years, really, back to Proposition 187, has drawn some lines for people, that if you are not a citizen, you really are second-class.

M-A: You partner with Univision in the “Yas Es Hora” voter outreach campaign, so the idea that the network would allow a media buy for the "don't vote" ads seemed a little surprising. I didn't receive a response when I inquired about it, but since you have worked with them, what do you think occurred?

Vargas: I think that what happened is a bit like what happens with the stock market being automated. I think it was intermediary people who negotiate buying ads, low-level people who say, “Okay, we have another commercial coming.” It was at that level. Once people realized what it was and the executives understood what was being agreed to, this is when they pulled out. I called them to ask what was going on and they said of “Of course, we would never air this stuff.” I think the initial purchases were done in a way where the company doesn’t know what it is buying. Once they knew what was going on, they said no way.

M-A: Had the ads aired, do you think they could really have swayed some voters?

Vargas: I don’t know. It certainly wouldn’t have helped. Though now that we are talking about this so much as a controversy, we can turn it around and say, “See, people are scared of you if you vote. You see what happens when you vote. Now, people are trying to keep you away.”