Every 30 seconds, a Latinx person turns 18. That means that, in the five minutes that it takes you to read this article, 10 Latinx youth will turn 18, 2,880 in the next 24 hours, and over a million in the next 365 days—each one potentially becoming eligible to vote.
These demographic trends are not new, and already we are seeing the impact of our growing community. In the 2020 presidential election, 16.6 million Latinx community members cast their vote, a 30.9 percent increase compared to 2016.
Our community has the potential to change the face of national and local elections while increasing representation in government and thus vastly improving the socioeconomic state of our community. According to Voto Latino, however, there were still 12 million Latinx people eligible to vote who did not register for the 2020 election.
While it is common to blame our community, the truth is that this is a constructed reality and the Latinx community’s lack of participation is by design. Voter apathy and lack of community engagement are founded on the lies that are continuously told within and to our community.
As a young Latina voter, I have been lied to.
For decades, the rhetoric around the Latinx vote is that it is the “Sleeping Giant.” The truth is that the “Sleeping Giant” was always awake and continues to build on a legacy of political participation, but we could do so much more if we recognize and address some of the ways we have been systematically disengaged.
It is time to identify and dispel some of the most pervasive lies told to Latinx voters that impede participation. It is time to challenge mainstream narratives and tell our truth.
Lie: My Vote Doesn’t Count
Our community is trapped. Candidates and political parties often focus on voters who participated in previous elections instead of reaching out to new voters during their campaigns. As a result, new voters are not engaged early on to shape a culture of participation and, in turn, are not targeted for outreach because they do not participate. Irregular outreach causes the Latinx community to feel disenfranchised and politically disempowered, leading many Latinx voters to believe that their vote does not count.
Important analysis conducted by UCLA’s Latino Policy and Politics Initiative detailed that the Latinx electorate voted for Biden over Trump by a 3-to-1 margin across critical states. Moreover, the impact of Latinx votes was felt in states with large Latinx populations and states where the Latinx population is smaller but whose impact is just as strong when participating in multiracial coalitions—perhaps best exemplified by Arizona and Georgia. Latinx voters flipped Arizona “from Republican to Democrat for the first time since 1996.” And Latinx voters in Georgia, only four percent of the state electorate, contributed to Biden’s winning margins.
While this is not to suggest that all Latinx individuals vote as Democrats or will always help to sway the vote for Democratic candidates, it does show that Latinx participation can greatly impact election results and that there is power in collective action. Whether talking about Arizona and Georgia or federal and local elections, do not let the lies we have been told prevent your participation. Your vote does count and will continue to contribute to and grow our impact on election outcomes.
Lie: Latinx People Are Immigrants Who Can’t Vote
While immigration is a central issue that intersects with Latinx political engagement and advocacy, the reality is that many of us have always been here. Mexicans inhabited much of the Southwest before it became the United States, while Puerto Ricans were granted U.S. citizenship in the early 1900s. Many Latinx community members not only helped to build the country, but our existence predates it.
So, while we must not fall into mainstream xenophobic narratives, we must also reject the notion that we are only newcomers to this country. The characterization of Latinx people as primarily immigrants was constructed to create systemic harm to the community by stifling our political engagement and taking away political agency.
Yes, noncitizen immigrants can’t vote in most elections today, but it is also important to know that this was not always true. Before the mid-1920s, undocumented immigrants could not only vote in local, state, and federal elections, but could also run for office. Immigrants’ voting was not a concern in early U.S. history, as the young nation viewed itself as one built on immigration. But eventually, voter restriction laws were created to mark the boundaries around voting rights and exclude our people from the country’s democracy.
In the same way that these laws were created for exclusion, they can be shifted to include immigrants once again—in fact, the shift has already begun. New York City expanded voting rights to undocumented immigrants in municipal elections, and San Francisco did the same for its school board elections.
These are not isolated cases. Other cities across the nation are proposing similar legislation. Undocumented immigrants work, go to school, church, shop, and live in communities in which they pay taxes––over $27 billion in taxes yearly––but are still denied the right to fully participate in their communities’ democracy.
All laws, including those determining the right to vote, are constructed through the will of the people. As a community that includes important immigrant voices, we must continue to seize the momentum of current legislation and return the right to vote to all of our community’s members, immigrants or citizens, documented or undocumented. Lies that erase the history of our community in this country or construct a limited democracy must be challenged.
Lie: All Citizens Have the Right to Vote
Across the United States, formerly incarcerated individuals have to navigate a complex set of voting laws that vary dramatically from state to state. In 11 states, people who served time in prison lose their voting rights indefinitely or require a pardon in order to vote again. Thirty-seven states allow people to vote upon release or after completing parole, and in just two states —Vermont and Maine– incarcerated people never lose their right to vote and can cast ballots by mail from prison.
With Black and Brown people disproportionately represented in our prisons, accounting for 60 percent of the 2.5 million currently incarcerated, the impact of a racist judicial system severely limits Latinx political participation. Similar to how our community is over-policed, prosecuted, and imprisoned, the impact of this inequity contributes to the de jure disenfranchisement of potential Latinx voters.
Our society, and more specifically our Latinx community, often does not want to talk about the excessively high rates of Latinx youth incarceration, which puts our youth behind bars at a rate 80 percent higher than white youth. Avoiding the conversation is the easier path and moves away from the mainstream, criminalized stereotypes of our community.
The disproportionate number of Latinx youth incarcerated, however, contributes to both our continued exclusion and diminished political power. With high rates of recidivism and many states denying the right to vote to formerly incarcerated people, voter disenfranchisement as a criminal punishment is unjust and often permanent.
Similar to the movement to expand immigrant voting rights, our community must have difficult conversations about incarceration, challenge these racist systems, and move to ensure that all voices are heard in our democracy, including those who are incarcerated.
Vote, Vote, Vote
We cannot achieve a representative democracy and challenge issues that greatly impact the Latinx community, like immigrant and incarcerated voting rights, without seeing the value in our vote. Whether it is voting for your city council member or the next president, electing individuals who look like us and understand our community’s needs is critical to begin fully utilizing our political power. We must reject the lies being told to our community that dilute our political agency and remember the weight that our vote carries as we head into the 2022 midterm elections this November.
Every 30 seconds a Latinx individual turns 18, but for too many, their power to shape our democracy will be limited by a system of injustices and lies. We have the power to change the narrative along with the future of our community and country.
Xalma Palomino is an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan where she is a double major in political science and Latina/o studies. She is a 2022 Truman Scholar recipient, heralded as “the premier graduate scholarship for aspiring public service leaders in the United States.”