Candidates need young people to boost Latino voter turnout. Here's why.

Nicole Acevedo

Ofelia Alonso, 24, thinks there's a big misconception that most Latinos are "part of an older generation who doesn't care about politics."

That's why she's wasn't surprised that 75 percent of young Latinos in Texas had not heard from any presidential campaign in the last six months, according to a poll from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), which studies young Americans’ political engagement.

"Organizers are the ones engaging with young Latino voters here, not the parties, not candidates," said Alonso, a field coordinator for the grassroots organization Texas Rising in the Rio Grande Valley.

"I often ask myself why people insist on saying that we're not involved, and it's because we're not included in these conversations," she said. "Candidates are not coming to engage with us."

Latinos are the nation's largest share of nonwhite voters: A record 32 million Latinos are projected to be eligible to vote in 2020, 13 percent of all eligible voters.

But what's more notable is their youth — about 40 percent of eligible Latino voters are between the ages of 18 and 35, according to census data. Latinos are among the youngest racial or ethnic group in the country with a median age of 30, according to the Pew Research Center.

One million Latinos are expected to turn 18 every year for the next two decades, meaning it's almost impossible to engage Latinx voters without understanding their connection to the nation’s youth vote.

Groups who have been polling young voters say political parties, especially Democrats, are missing the opportunity to engage with one of the nation's largest growing electorates to increase Latino voter participation.

A poll by the Alliance for Youth Action and HIT Strategies found that 64 percent of young voters had never been contacted directly by a Democratic presidential campaign via text message, phone or email. They also found young voters are very engaged in politics — they're just more issue-oriented than candidate-oriented.

Some Democratic presidential candidates are scrambling to rally young Latinx voters in states such as California and Texas ahead of the Super Tuesday contests in 14 states on March 3. More than half of all Latinx eligible voters live in these states, according to Pew.

Missed opportunity?

Victoria Sandoval has lived in Laredo, Texas, her whole life. As a field organizer with the grassroots group MOVE Texas, she's been registering many of the people she grew up with in the mostly Hispanic city to vote during the 2020 presidential election.

"I see how disenfranchised voters feel by presidential candidates," said Sandoval, 24, adding the feeling partly stems from "a tone-deaf approach" to how campaigns visualize the so-called "Latino vote."

While the issues young Latinx voters prioritize vary depending on where they live, Terrance Woodbury of HIT Strategies said most are not feeling the effects of a recovering economy since 74 percent believe they will stay the same or fall behind economically in the future, according to the poll he helped conduct.

"It's not common for a young generation to be this pessimistic about the economy," he told NBC News.

Woodbury deemed this a "missed opportunity" for Democratic candidates to engage the "most diverse voting bloc" in the process of electing the nominee, especially when it's clear that "Trump is not the candidate for young people" as he continuously touts "how good the economy is."

While the policy agenda that young voters prioritize aligns closely with what many Democratic candidates propose, they "must be persuaded," Woodbury says, "especially when many young voters tend to not identify with either political party."

An eye on the issues

For Edgar Ortuño, 23, a voter from Orange County, California, climate change and the environment are the main issues motivating him to go vote; he also cited immigration.

For Sandoval, immigration, health care and reproductive rights are at the top of her list, and for her Laredo community "anything affecting the border."

Esthefanie Solano, 26, helps high school students register to vote as part of her work with the Los Angeles-based nonprofit InnerCity Struggle, where she's a communications strategist.

In California, 16- and 17-year-olds can preregister to vote. Nearly 500,000 of these Gen Z teens have preregistered since 2016 and more than half have “aged-up” and are now registered voters.

Solano, describes them as an "empathetic voting bloc that understand the roots of injustices." Immigration, homelessness, gentrification and criminal justice are some of the top issues mobilizing young voters in her community.

She recalled approaching a high school student in East Los Angeles who didn't initially seem interested in preregistering, but did after learning that a jail reform measure to help reduce the state's prison population, known as Measure R, would be on California's ballot on Super Tuesday.

"This issue is incredibly important to her because her father could face life in prison," Solano said.

Brian Rosas, 22, an advocacy organizer for the Minnesota Youth Collective, says housing, rent control and environmental issues are important to him. Other issues that drive young Twin Cities voters to the polls are student debt, police brutality and white supremacy.

"Some may not be noticing this, but episodes of supremacy are increasing and it's becoming more crucial: Trying to end supremacy is a shared goal because this country is not majority white in many counties," he said.

Latinx millennials are more likely than other ethnic groups to self-identify as LGBTQ. For voters like Alonso, LGBTQ issues are high on the list, along with immigration and reproductive justice.

"They're not just issues. They affect my life, my family and my body. Voting is the first and easiest step towards change after seeing how bad policy destroys our communities," Alonso said.

Family influencers

In Sandoval's view, campaigns are wasting resources when they don't engage young Latinos, since they often influence how their families and friends engage in politics.

"Not all young people are college students. Sometimes they're the head of the household, the main providers," she said. "We are often doing the explaining to our parents; we're like the hub of information, the messengers, especially in mixed immigration status families or if your parents just became citizens."

"That's a lot of power for these young people, typically women of color. That trust is very powerful," Sandoval added.

Adriana Álvarez, 25, a voter in West Covina, California, echoed Sandoval's point.

"It's really an honor for my family to have someone representing their voices. Even though it’s always my own opinion or choice, they trust my judgment," she said.

Immigration is an issue that influences the way Álvarez votes because of her family, but universal health care and college affordability are her top issues.

"Student debt — are you even a millennial if you don’t have it?" she said.

Driving up voting?

Early voting in Texas' top 10 counties for voter registrations has been increasing. This includes Travis County, which is 34 percent Hispanic.

"Young Latinos are driving that increase, a lot of them first time voters who recognize their power," Alonso said. "Even when Texas makes it difficult to register voters with so many barriers and legalities, they're still doing it."

Young voters in Travis County are highly likely to influence future elections because they're increasingly harnessing youth civic engagement, CIRCLE data shows. Webb and Starr counties, where Sandoval and Alonso vote respectively, follow similar patterns. Comparable patterns are also seen in Los Angeles County, where Álvarez votes.

Young people are traditionally known for having a lower voter turnout but the trend appeared to shift during the 2018 midterm elections when 28 percent of eligible young voters, ages 18 to 29, turned out to vote, surpassing the past seven midterms, particularly the 2014 one which had the lowest youth turnout rate ever.

Sarah Audelo, executive director of the group Alliance for Youth Action, said that it's "squarely on the candidates" to harness this uptick, which can in turn boost and grow the Latino vote, which has traditionally voted well below its potential.

In Minnesota, Rosas says young voters will take the initiative and come to the candidates, "as long as candidates are meaningfully talking about solving the issues we care about."

He thinks Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., have done the best job at that.

"I think a lot of people see themselves in policies," Rosas said, "and then, they support a candidate from there."

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Victoria Sandoval, a field organizer with the grassroots group MOVE Texas, in Laredo.
Edgar Ortuno.
Victoria Sandoval, a field organizer with the grassroots group MOVE Texas, in Laredo.