In an election affected by the pandemic, the number of Latinos eligible to vote who chose not to cast a ballet rose.  

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Half of all Latinos eligible to vote in North Carolina did not cast ballots in the 2020 election. Voter abstention among the state’s Latino population has been rising since 2008 and is now higher than among other groups.

In 2004, the year  President George W. Bush was re-elected, only one-fourth of the 109,000 Latinos eligible in North Carolina cast their votes. Latinos’ participation grew significantly in 2008, when Barack Obama won the presidency: almost seven out of ten Latinos turned up at the polls.  But the percentage has been dropping ever since.

Last November, about 492,000 Latinos met the requirements for voter registration -- that they be citizens over 18 --  but only 49% actually voted in the presidential election. 

These numbers come from La Noticia’s analysis  of data from the Current Population Survey (CPS).  Conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, this monthly survey on unemployment also includes, after elections, a question on about whether respondents voted. Released April 28, the data is the most up-to-date information on Latino voting  nationwide.

German De Castro, who with his wife, Olma Echeverri,has promoted voting in North Carolina's Latino community for over three decades says the high turnout in the Obama election resulted from a more open attitude in the Democratic Party and Obama’s promise, never fulfilled, of immigration reform that would allow 11 million undocumented to come out of the shadows.

"There is still a lot of work to be done to motivate people to register and convince them that their vote is important, or that it matters," De Castro said. "If we as a group do not register, we will never be perceived as politically relevant and compel candidates to answer to us. They may dismiss us as a relevant group for them."

The couple, both Colombian-born Democrats began, emphasizing the importance for Mecklenburg Latinos to register and vote during Bill Clinton's first presidential race in 1992.

De Castro and Echeverri founded Hispanos Demócratas (Hispanic Democrats) and Coalición de Votantes Hispanos (the Hispanic Voter Coalition) in Mecklenburg County; both groups have expanded  statewide. When they began their work, the couple said, the county had only 1,200 registered  Latino voters. Until 2002,  the North Carolina Election Board did not have an option to identify as Latino.

Over one million Latinos live in North Carolina. Today, half of the Latinos over 18 are eligible to vote. In 2004, only one-third of Latinos were citizens eligible to vote, according to Census Bureau data. Latinos, independent of race, voted less in the 2020, while 67% of white voters who did not identify as Latino voted. 

Bob Coats,the governor’s census liaison to the North Carolina Office of State Budget and Management, said Latinos were the fastest-growing group in the state, and that means more eligible Latino voters.

The challenge for the community and the advocacy groups, Coats said, is motivating these new voters to register and participate. 

A complex phenomenon

One factor that explains abstention levels among Latinos in North Carolina in 2020 is that only 54% of eligible voters registered. 

Echeverri says the measures to fight the pandemic had a negative impact on registration numbers in her community because they hindered advocacy.

"We experienced it as an organization.” she said. “We used to do events at Compare Food,”  a Latino supermarket chain, “to get people to register. We were unable to do it for this election." 

She added that she and her workers could approach prospective voters only during early voting, when they set up tables for same-day registration. After that, she said,  participation could be promoted only through social media  and news coverage. 

Juan Miranda, organizing director of  Siembra NC, a nonprofit organization, agrees that the pandemic could have had a negative impact on Latino registration. Siembra’s strategies of door-to-door visits, attending  Quinceañera events and having a presence at concerts to attract younger voters had to be suspended because of the pandemic.

La Noticia’s analysis of voter registration numbers and historical voting figures from the North Carolina State Board of Election showed that Latinos under 30 were the largest age group eligible to vote in this community, but also  the group that showed up the least at the polls.

Manolo Betancourt
Manolo Betancourt, a retired leader of the Latino Democrats in the state, said Latinos are often disillusioned with politics because of their experience in their home countries. (Photo: Mónica Cordero)

The board's data also shows a significant group that does not identify with a specific ethnicity. Identifying as Latino is voluntary, and this would explain why total Latino voter turnout numbers from the Census Bureau are higher than the Election Board shows. But the information from the Election Board shows voter age groups, voting choice and the voting methods Latinos used.

La Noticia interviewed electoral experts and promoters of Latino voter registration to explain abstention in this group. They say the causes are complex. 

One is that a fraction of the voters, especially younger ones, are part of the first generations that are eligible to vote, but they lack a family culture that promotes showing up for the election.

Other reasons are that people in this group do not identify with presidential candidates, are disillusioned with political parties and believe their vote will not make a difference.

"We have to understand that, because of the culture we bring from our own countries, we picture politicians as being corrupt and tyrannical,” said  Manolo Betancourt, a retired leader of Latino Democrats in the state. 

“We have this baggage and think that it would be the same here in the U.S., so voting is a waste of time."

Latinos’ wariness toward political parties and their candidates has made an important proportion of them prefer to register as independents.

Mónica Cordero

Mónica Cordero es una periodista independiente de investigación que usa el análisis de datos para contar historias a profundidad. Es costarricense y vive en la Ciudad de Nueva York.

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