Behind the surge: Young Latinos can’t vote but urge others to do so

By Alex Ortiz 

Inside a Target in suburban Bolingbrook, about seven volunteers call hundreds of eligible voters urging them to the polls Tuesday, even though, at 14 to 17, these young Latinas can’t vote themselves.

“We’re not just sitting around and saying ‘Oh we don’t want this president,’” said Claudia Garcia, 14, a junior high schooler. “We just want to make a difference and want more people to vote.”

Garcia estimates she has called over 1,000 people over the past month to remind them to vote. And while she is still four years away from being able to cast her own ballot, she still cares about some of the issues at stake in this election. For one, some of her family members are undocumented.

Claudia  is part of an effort by the nonprofit organization called the Southwest Suburban Immigrant Project, to engage low-propensity voters, many of whom are immigrants, ranging from millennials to the elderly.  Founded in 2010, the group advocates for immigrant rights and comprehensive immigration reform, which has become a point of frustration.

Pew Research Center says there are 27.3 million eligible Latino voters, four million more than in 2012, accounting for 12 percent of eligible voters. These votes would be a boon to Democrats since African-American turnout in early voting is lagging behind rates during the same period in 2012 and 2008. In fact,  Latino early voting appears to be surging.

But even for a solidly blue state like Illinois, groups like the SSIP have experienced struggles, specifically among immigrants whose first language isn’t English, and millennial Latinos.

Nancy Garcia, the electoral organizer for the SSIP, recruited volunteers, collected names and phone numbers from public records, and has even personally driven people to the polls. One of the biggest challenges for some low-propensity voters is access to information. Many of the elderly have difficulty navigating the internet and complain of not enough literature about the election in Spanish, especially about local and state races.  

Garcia and the SSIP are also trying to convince the Latino millennials their voices matter, and for good reason: 44 percent of Latino eligible voters are millennials, according to Pew.

“They believe that their vote does not count,” Garcia said. “And it’s important to remind them that it’s not only presidential elections but positions statewide.”

Claudia Garcia, 14, calls one of the hundreds of eligible voters to remind them to get to the polls.
Claudia Garcia, 14, calls one of the hundreds of eligible voters to remind them to get to the polls.

One of those millennials is Mariana Vargas, who is also volunteering as a caller. She will barely miss eligibility to vote since she is 17, but she still understands the importance of this election. Her father came to the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant, but he got lucky and was able to attain legal status. Her uncles were not so lucky. So she wants others to have the opportunities her father has had, even though this particular election has been as frustrating to her as it has for many.

“I always watch the debates and I’m like, ‘Oh these people don’t know what they’re saying sometimes,” Vargas said. “It’s funny to see how these people might actually be our leaders and they don’t even know what they’re talking about sometimes.”

That is why she’s diligently made each call, informing them about dates, deadlines and locations, even if they respond with apathy. One day she heard one of her own teachers talk about how she had never voted and how it wasn’t her problem who became president. Needless to say, Vargas took issue with that.

“I think she should care,” Vargas said. “I was like ‘If I was your age, I would vote.’”

Photo at top: Mariana Vargas (front) and other volunteers call potential voters to remind them to cast their votes. (Alex Ortiz/MEDILL)