‘They are the most difficult’: Why is voter turnout so low for Latino youth in NC?

·6 min read

At the end of April 2020, just weeks after becoming a U.S. citizen, Daniella Cárdenas, a young woman from Peru who lives in Mecklenburg County, registered to vote. Six months later, in November, she voted for the first time in a presidential election.

“Personally, I have never been a supporter of former President (Donald) Trump. So, I wanted to vote so that my ballot would count and so that there could be another administration in office. And that led me to apply (for citizenship) and to want to vote,” she explained.

Cárdenas, 21, belongs to the largest age group of Latino voters in North Carolina – 42% are under 30 years old. Her enthusiasm for going to the polls is not shared by other Latinos in this group.

Although this group of voters is the largest, it also had the lowest turnout rates. More than half of Latinos ages 18 to 29 who were registered to vote in the November elections abstained from doing so, according to La Noticia’s analysis of voter registration and voter history data from the North Carolina State Board of Elections.

Individuals ages 30-39, who represent 20% of registered voters in the Latino community, also had low voter turnout rates.

The data analysis also showed that the oldest Latinos, who make up the smallest group, are the ones who went to the polls the most. 73% of Latinos ages 50-59 who were registered to vote did so, and those 60 and older had similar rates of participation.

“Young people (in a community) are the voters who everyone is always trying to encourage to vote, but they are the most difficult ones to get to go out and vote consistently,” said Leonardo Scarpati, Chair of the Latino Civic Engagement Committee, an organization that started in 2017 with the goal of educating and encouraging Latino participation in the electoral process in Mecklenburg County.

Citizens registered as Latino with the North Carolina State Board of Elections represent 3% of all registered voters.

This number might be higher because reporting ethnicity is not required in the state and depends on the decision of the voter. This figure also does not include those who registered to vote prior to 2002, the year ethnicity information was first included in the voter registry, which has data that has not been updated.

Latino voters are young

Democrat Barack Obama won North Carolina narrowly in 2008, but the state favored Republican candidates in the presidential elections since then.

Because North Carolina is a “swing” state, minority groups carry an important weight in close elections. Moreover, the state has been experiencing a demographic change since the beginning of this century.

From 2000 to 2010, both the U.S.-born and foreign-born Hispanic populations increased in North Carolina, although the U.S.-born population grew more quickly, according to a report by Carolina Demography, an organization at the Carolina Population Center at UNC-Chapel Hill.

“In the last few years, it is the first time that we’re really starting to see a large number of second generation Hispanic residents who are eligible to vote and (who are) also participating in elections,” explains Rebecca Tippett, director at Carolina Demography.

The average age of Latinos in North Carolina, according to the report data, is 24.8 years old, compared with the national average of 29.5 years old.

Why aren’t they going to the polls?

Tippett added that younger adults, regardless of ethnicity, tend to vote less than older adults. “Voting tends to be something that is a habit developed over time for many people, and it’s stronger at older ages.”

La Noticia’s data analysis of voter registration and voting history in North Carolina shows that individuals under the age of 30, regardless of their ethnicity, are the group that voted the least in the 2020 elections.

However, this trend is even more pronounced among Latino voters. 52% of the youngest Latinos decided not to vote, compared to 44% of non-Latino voters and 39% of those who did not indicate their ethnicity.

Tippett pointed out that some Latino young adults are the first in their family to be eligible to vote and may not have seen their parents, who are not citizens, do so.

Daniella Cárdenas, who came to the United States at the age of 8, said that she learned the importance of voting from her mother, who lives in the United States and votes by absentee ballot in the Peruvian elections.

“I think it is also an influence. (In Peru) it is mandatory to vote. If we return to Peru and we want to do anything, such as renew our ID, we have to pay a fine (if we did not vote),” she explains.

La Noticia conducted a survey of 20 Latino voters under age 39 (a group that represents more than 60% of Latino voters) who are Mecklenburg County residents and who did not vote in the November elections, according to official voting records. The poll revealed that the main reasons for not voting include lack of time, disillusionment with politicians, and the idea that voting does not generate any change.

Mary Aguirre explained that she does not like to vote because politicians “make promises and say what people want to hear, but when the time comes, they do what they want.”

How Latinos in NC prefer to vote

Nevertheless, the participation of the youngest voters increased in the 2020 general elections compared with the 2016 elections, according to Abby Kiesa, Deputy Director of the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE).

“Between 2016 and 2020, voter turnout in North Carolina jumped 10 points. That might not seem like a lot, but in terms of actual turnout rates, that’s a huge jump,” said Kiesa, whose independent organization conducts research on youth civic engagement in the United States.

Kiesa explained that they are still analyzing data from the recent elections, but they have found that the voting rates of young people living in the South are lower than in other parts of the country, where it was easier to vote.

Early voting and in-person voting were the methods most frequently used by Latinos in North Carolina, during an electoral process that unfolded amid the COVID-19 public health crisis. Younger voters also preferred these two options: 60% voted early and another 23% voted in person on November 3.

Kiesa said that young people not voting is related to the lack of information about the electoral process, for example, doubts and fears about how to vote. There is also a lack of networks that allow them to talk about these issues and have a voice in the process.

“These kinds of local connections and local relationships can be really important,” she said.

Mónica Cordero is a freelance investigative journalist based in New York.