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Michigan's Latinos could help determine elections, but campaign outreach isn't always there

Election poll sign that says "Vote Here" & "Vote Aqui" and a red left pointing arrow with a flag of the United States on the top left of the sign.
Erik (HASH) Hersman, Flickr
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Latinos in Michigan make up nearly 4% of eligible voters in the state, a number that could be the deciding factor for some campaigns and candidates.

Hilda Sancen is one of nearly 300,000 thousand eligible Latino voters in Michigan. Despite being able to vote for several decades, the Detroit area resident has only cast a ballot in the last two presidential elections.

“I try to stay far away from politics...maybe its my own ignorance of wondering whether my vote actually matters. But this time around I was planning on voting but I wasn’t sure for who or what," she said.

Sancen considers herself a liberal Catholic and says she was leaning towards voting in favor of Proposal 3. If approved by voters, it would guarantee the right to an abortion in the state constitution. But she says she changed her mind after connecting with a Spanish speaking Right to Life of Michigan organizer. The group opposes the measure.

“My opinion on Proposal Three definitely changed based on the information I received," Sancen said.

Multilingual voter outreach has been more uncommon in the past, but political parties and groups are seeing untapped potential in the Latino voting bloc. But still, many Latino voters in Michigan remain unseen.

Eric Gonzalez Juenke is an associate professor of political science at Michigan State University. He studies how Latinos in the United States vote. He says the engagement of this community is totally dependent on how political parties and campaigns do outreach.

“So you have close races, for example, in the third House district: Hillary Scholten and John Gibbs. It's a close race and every vote matters. Latinos make up about 10% of the population in that district. Neither candidate has Spanish translated website," he said. "Now ... for most Latino voters, that's not going to matter. But for some it does and it's a big deal.”

Gonzalez Juenke says Latino voters tend to be younger than the rest of eligible voters and are motivated by the same things other voters are.

"Which is the economy, crime, guns, health care, education, abortion is certainly one of the issues that has grown in salience for Latino voters over the last few months," he said.

According to a recent poll from the Pew Research Center 57% of Latinos surveyed said abortion became a very important issue to watch in the elections.

"And that that could matter in a state like Michigan that has a statewide proposition on it," he said.

Loida Tapia is the director of MI Poder, a non-partisan political advocacy organization focused on issues important to Michigan’s Latino community. Today, more than 40% of eligible Latino voters in the state are not registered to vote, and she blames campaigns' lack of intentional outreach for their low turnout at the polls.

“You know, it's not until the final weeks when elections and candidates wake up and decide, 'I guess we need to do outreach in Spanish or we need to do outreach to Latino communities,'" she explained.

According to the most recent data from the U.S. Census, the Latino community in Michigan was responsible for the majority of the state’s population growth in the last decade.

“We know that Latinos are the youngest population in the country and we're going to continue to grow and so these dynamics are going to continue to shift and if any political party wants to stay in power, they're going to have to engage Latinos at a much better and stronger way," she said.

Data from the Pew Research Center shows the median age of Latino voters in Michigan and across the country is 39 years old, nine years younger than the median age of all U.S. adult eligible voters.

Gonzalez Juenke says even though many Latinos have conservative cultural values, they tend to vote along Democrat party lines.

"This differs by age, younger voters of all groups, including Latino groups, tend to be more culturally liberal as well," he added.

Erica Navarro is 44 years old and lives in the suburbs of West Michigan. She’s already voted in favor of Proposal 3. But says if her decision had been dependent on the level of engagement she’s received from political campaigns, she would have skipped the measure on her ballot.

“So I actually have not really felt like I've been reached, like outreached to as far as voting or from either side, other than flyers and ads on TV," Navarro said.

What did make the difference for Navarro was a conversation she had with her daughter.

“Some of the things my daughter said were just kind of sticking with me. What she said was, and she continues to say, is it's health care...reproductive health is health care," she added.

Tapia says that for many campaigns, creating effective Latino outreach is still an untapped strategy.

“Were persuadable just like any other voting bloc. It's how much are you engaging? How early on? And are you actually making a concerted effort to reach into the community?"

Latinos make up nearly 4% of eligible voters in the state, a number that could be the deciding factor for some campaigns and candidates. But in today’s elections, they often remain an afterthought.

As WKAR's Bilingual Latinx Stories Reporter, Michelle reports in both English and Spanish on stories affecting Michigan's Latinx community.
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