Sixteen years ago, Al Gore barely beat George W. Bush in Iowa by just 2,000 votes, so in a tight election a new block of Latino voters here could be pivotal.
Earlier this year, about 16 percent of all eligible voters participated in the Iowa Caucuses. But according to Joe Henry of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), Caucus turn-out among Iowa Latinos was even higher, at 25 percent. His organization is now shifting to mobilize voters for the General Election. Volunteers and paid staffers started going door-to-door this weekend, talking face-to-face with Latino voters.
“We’re right up there with the other groups with funding to get out the vote,” Henry said Sunday.
That’s because Henry and his team have raised $265,000 over the past year for these election efforts in Iowa. Maria Bribriesco of Bettendorf, the league’s deputy state director, has helped organized house parties to talk through voting with nervous first-timers.
“At the Caucus I think we made a big difference,” Bribriesco told WVIK Radio earlier this fall. “The last presidential election we were pivotal in the success of President Obama and I believe that in this election cycle we are going to be the force that determines who wins.”
Sal Alaniz of Mount Pleasant drove to Des Moines for the capital city’s Latino Heritage Festival in mid-September — to register voters.
“What’s important to me is not so much what I’m hearing about the election, but what I represent,” Alaniz said during an interview with Radio Iowa. “And what I represent is an individual and a family…husband and wife, children and grandchildren that are very much the fabric of America.”
Alaniz’s grandparents immigrated from Mexico to Michigan and Kansas and eventually settled in Chicago in the early 1900s. His family opened a printing business in Mount Pleasant nearly 40 years ago.
“For those that are taking a posture of not to vote or disenfranchise themselves (by saying): ‘My vote is not significant’ or that ‘It really doesn’t matter,’ I challenge that because growth in our society in business and civic engagement calls for us to be able to listen to all sides and respond definitively with our voice.”
Other voices are making the pitch to Latinos in Iowa.
“I moved as an older person, an adult, to the U.S…so when I talk to people I’m talking with my Colombian accent,” Clemen Wilcox, a native of Colombia, said last week during an interview with Radio Iowa. “I am being very upfront and I directly (say): ‘Are you a citizen? Can you vote?'”
Wilcox became a U.S. citizen in 2008 and has started her own consulting business in Des Moines. She’s not part of the LULAC effort, but is a volunteer for Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Wilcox has been driving to Perry, where about a third of residents identify as Latino or Hispanic.
“The majority of Hispanic citizens in Perry are Mexican-American. They have been the ones that have taken the worst during this campaign, so you don’t need to convince them,” she said. “They want to vote.”
The Clinton campaign has a Spanish-language portal on its website, directing Iowa Latinos to places in the state where they can vote early.
Many Latinos who are new citizens and first-time voters don’t want to vote with an absentee ballot. Wilcox and others say many people from Central America and South America do not trust the post office, so satellite voting is crucial for some first-timers. Henry, who is the Midwest vice president for LULAC, said since 68 percent of Latinos in Iowa were born in America, many have voted before and have no qualms about going to their precinct on Election Day.
“There’s a real energy now in the community to really make our voices heard,” Henry said Sunday. “And our people realize that our vote is our voice.”
Iowa’s Latino population has more than doubled in the past 15 years. About six percent of the state’s residents identify as Latino or Hispanic.