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Wisconsin’s Latinos Could Decide the Election

Lots of room for growth and influence

Aug. 7, 2008
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Sen. John Kerry barely squeaked out a victory in Wisconsin during the 2004 presidential election, with just 11,400 more votes than President George Bush. So it’s no wonder that community organizers are working to register the tens of thousands of Latino voters in Wisconsin who are eligible to vote but don’t show up at the polls.

These new voters could decide the presidential election and affect races statewide. State figures show that only 35% of about 100,000 eligible Latino voters in Wisconsin are registered to vote, and just 33% actually vote on Election Day. The largest concentration of Wisconsin’s Latino voters is concentrated on Milwaukee’s South Side, which historically has low voter turnout.

“We are working to turn that around,” said Christine Neumann-Ortiz, founding executive director of the immigrants’ rights group Voces de la Frontera.

Milwaukee- and Racine-based Voces de la Frontera has already signed up more than 1,500 new voters this year, and increased Latino voter turnout in 2006 by 32%. Waukesha based La Casa de Esperanza has registered more than 130 people with a goal of 400 in its third voter registration drive. The Urban League of Racine and Kenosha and the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) are registering Latino voters in Kenosha.

Neumann-Ortiz said the biggest barriers for Latino voters are language and voter education. Voces, along with the ACLU of Wisconsin, advocated for Spanish-language bilingual ballot instructions and voter information at the polls in wards that have more than 40% Spanish-speaking voters. The new Spanish and English ballots, created by the city and state election commissions, launched in the February primary election.

Voces is also providing information about the candidates’ policies and other ballot initiatives for Spanish speakers, along with tips on how to fill out a ballot and where to vote. Voces has also developed a political arm this year, Voces de la Frontera Action, which allows the organization to endorse candidates and become involved in lobbying. But its voter registration drive and education are conducted by its nonpolitical entity.

Reaching Out to Latino Voters
Both Democratic nominee Barack Obama and Republican nominee John McCain are reaching out to Latino voters, with personal appearances and paid ads. Both candidates spoke at national conventions of LULAC and La Raza to confirm their commitment to causes that are important to Latinos.

Both candidates have Spanish-language ads with messages tailored to Latino voters. Obama’s ads stress his biography as a self-made man who worked his way through college, the son of a single mother and an immigrant father, as well as his advocacy for job-training programs, immigration reform and veterans.

Obama and the Democratic National Committee also announced a $20 million campaign to target Latino voters, especially those in Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Florida. Phil Walzak, communications director for Obama in Wisconsin, said that a portion of that would be spent in Wisconsin on a variety of outreach efforts.

Walzak said that Obama’s tax policies—cutting taxes for middle-class and working-class families, providing a tax rebate from the wind fall tax on oil companies and eliminating taxes for seniors making less than $50,000—would appeal to Latino voters.

“The issues that will appeal to Latino voters are the same issues that will appeal to all voters, and those are pocketbook issues,” Walzak said. The ads from Obama’s challenger, Republican McCain, emphasize his respect for Latino members of the military, his economic plan and Obama’s recent trip overseas, which did not include any stops in Latin America.

Hessy Fernandez, spokeswoman for McCain’s campaign, said that McCain’s advocacy for immigration reform and efforts to cut taxes for small business owners would win over Latino voters.

“John McCain doesn’t need an introduction to the Hispanic community, as Barack Obama needs,” Fernandez said. “John McCain has been working for more than two decades for the values, positions and issues the Latino community cares about.”

Questions About Immigration Reform

Despite McCain’s long history on immigration reform, Obama has a 3-to-1 lead over McCain among Latino voters, with 66% support to McCain’s 23%, according to a July Pew Hispanic Center survey. By comparison, Bush won about 40% of Latino voters in the 2004 election.

McCain’s low support among Latino voters nationwide is in stark contrast to his record in Arizona, where he won two-thirds of the Latino vote in 2004. But that was before the Republican Party made immigration reform a hot-button issue for its base, requiring McCain to balance the competing interests of the anti immigration Republican base with his Latino supporters.

Although the media, when dealing with Latino issues, primarily focus on immigration reform, the Pew survey shows that Latino vot ers are more concerned about education, the cost of living, jobs, health care, crime and the war in Iraq. “For the Latino community, well, I think for everyone in general, the main concern is the economy, which affects everything,” said Anselmo Villareal, executive director of La Casa de Esperanza. “Plus the price of gas, the war in Iraq—but mostly the economy.”

Yet a Pew Research Center survey conduct ed last fall found that immigration was the third-most important issue for Republican voters, behind the Iraq war and terrorism.

And the Republican base favors a more puni tive, law-enforcement approach than the more moderate wing of the Republican Party and Democrats, adding complexity to McCain’s overtures to Latino voters.

Neumann-Ortiz said that she was pleased that McCain became his party’s candidate, since the other Republican contenders had run highly anti-immigrant campaigns. But she said that McCain had “basically changed his position” and had become more conservative on immigration to win the Republican nomi nation, while Obama’s position was more consistent.

“Now [McCain] supports enforcement first and then he’ll get to legalization [of undocu mented workers],” she said. “Obama recog nizes that we need a comprehensive approach and that we should create legal avenues for students and families of workers.”

Voces de la Frontera’s next voter registra tion drive will be held on Saturday, Aug. 16. To get involved, call 643-1620 in Milwaukee or 262-619-4183 in Racine, or go to www.vdlf.org.

What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com or comment on this story online at www.expressmilwaukee.com.

Voter Drive | Photo by Dave Moore of Voces de la Frontera

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