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Q&A: Voto Latino's Maria Teresa Kumar on the voting power of U.S.-born Latinos

A bilingual after-voting sticker, February 2008
A bilingual after-voting sticker, February 2008
Photo by buschap/Flickr (Creative Commons)

No one is more familiar with the power of the Latino vote, considered pivotal in tomorrow's midterm election, than the organizations working to get Latino voters to the polls.

Unlike some groups that focus outreach efforts on Spanish-dependent immigrants, Voto Latino focuses on younger Latinos who are U.S-born and English-dependent, employing popular culture and social media in its outreach. The nonprofit was co-founded in 2004 by actress/activist Rosario Dawson and its executive director, Maria Teresa Kumar. Since then the organization has registered tens of thousands of voters.

Born in Colombia, Kumar has been named by PODER Magazine as one of the most notable 20 U.S. Hispanics under 40 years old. She is a political contributor to MSNBC and has also appeared on CNN’s AC 360 and American Morning, NPR, Telemundo and CNBC.

Kumar discusses the role and influence of young Latino voters, and how to reach them.

M-A: Voto Latino focuses on U.S.-born, English-dominant young Latino voters, vs. Spanish-dominant immigrants. What made you (and Rosario) decide this was the group you wanted to focus on? How much of this comes from your experience growing up here as a child of immigrants?

Kumar: As we know, young Latinos, 1st and 2nd generation and “1.5s” consume their media in English, not Spanish, and their preferences track more along the lines of mainstream American youth. The fact is there are 50,000 Latinos, eligible to vote, that turn 18 in this country every day. If they all exercised their right to vote, that group alone represents true political power.

Rosario (Dawson) is extremely passionate about empowering the young American Latinos in this country—specifically through civic participation, which was the inspiration for Voto Latino in 2004. There was a clear void in many voter and political organizations speaking to this group. My personal background, as an American citizen that immigrated from Colombia as a young girl, I was personally affected by the stark differences I witnessed in an overall lack of power among working class Latinos and Americans and a desire to change the balance of power.

M-A: I understand that there are as many challenges to reaching Latino second- and third- generation voters as there are to reaching the first generation, if very different ones. What are the challenges you face in getting younger, U.S.-born Latino voters to the polls?

Kumar: Younger, U.S.-born Latino voters have an extraordinary day-to-day role they play within their families. They are the primary English speakers. They are constantly translating for their parents and non-English speaking relatives. There isn’t so much a challenge of reaching them, but a lack of understanding of how to reach them. It’s not through "checking a box" via Latino media, for example, but a deeper understanding of both the media landscape and the credibility of peer-to-peer communication channels in reaching this audience.

M-A: The Pew Hispanic Center recently released its report indicating low voter motivation among Latinos – what are you encountering among the under-34 U.S.-born crowd? What issues do you think will motivate them to get to the polls?

Kumar: Voto Latino and other organizers are working to surpass 2006 mid-term election turnout levels, not measuring ourselves against 2008, which would be like comparing apples to oranges.

Issues such as joblessness, education gaps and immigration mark the myriad concerns bringing voters to the polls.

Immigration is one of the issues Latinos care about, but it’s not the only issue Latinos care about. An October 5th, 2010 Pew Hispanic Center study found that the top issues amongst Latino registered voters were education, jobs, and healthcare.

Those priorities are very closely in alignment with other American voters. It’s important for candidates to recognize that speaking only about Immigration is not going to increase turnout or support.

M-A: How does Voto Latino reach younger Latino voters? What is different about what what Voto Latino does than, say, what Rock the Vote does to reach a mainstream youth audience? Is there a particular cultural savvy that you employ in your outreach?

Kumar: Voto Latino works closely with Rock the Vote, Generational Alliance and other Millenials organizations on many initiatives. We have consistently acknowledged the role and influence of mainstream youth culture/celebrities and content to capture the attention of young American Latinos, while also realizing this group is bi-cultural. Multi-platform peer-to-peer communication, effective leveraging of the latest social applications are also part of our overall strategy. In fact in 2006 Voto Latino launched the first-ever SMS/mobile register-to-vote campaign.

M-A: Do you have any statistics on the under-34 voter turnout (and in particular, under-34 Latino turnout) from 2008? Did the promise of a large Latino youth voter turnout, given all the youth involvement in the 2006 immigration reform marches, ever become reality?

Kumar: 2008 was a landmark year for Latino youth participation. Voto Latino registered 35,000 youth, in fact, through canvassing and online registration. Just in the four weeks leading up to the final deadline days, Voto Latino registered over 10K first-time voters, which could end up being a wild card when you look at state and local municipalities with close races.

M-A: If the Latino youth vote were tapped to its full potential, how influential could it be?

MTK: If 2008 put the Latino vote in the national conversation, 2010 illustrates that this voting bloc is going to play a crucial part in every election. The demographics alone of American Latinos of all generations: Latinos comprise the largest minority; they have the largest potential of new voters ~ 50K turn 18 every month and are eligible to vote; in 85 congressional districts, 20% of the vote is Latino (Almanac of Latino Politics, USHLI).

When looking at local races, which are neck-and-neck, that 100 or 1000 votes makes the difference.