Voto Latino's Maria Teresa Kumar: "This election is critically important"

In the past month, we’ve gotten discouraging news about and for Latino voters: A Pew Hispanic poll said that 50 percent of registered Latino voters planned to skip the election, at least one group (Latinos for Reform) was urging Latinos to stay home as a way to protesting its perceived inaction to our issues by President Obama and Democrats, and while some candidates tried every which way to get our votes, others were using blatantly racist ads that made Latinos look like thugs. What’s a voter to think? We spoke to Maria Teresa Kumar, executive director of Voto Latino, and talked about how Latinos are actually turning up at the polls more than ever and about why you should care about this election.

What did you think of the Pew Hispanic poll saying that half of us won’t be voting this week?

My biggest concern was that it was comparing 2008 [when Latinos voted in the presidential election at unprecedented levels] to 2010 for Latino participation. And what it should have been doing is taking a look at historical levels. And when you look at historical levels for midterm elections, yes it’s true that while we lag behind the majority of the population, our participation has seen an uptick. It’s never gone down. It’s been a steady increase. From 1998 to 2010 it’s been roughly a 5 percent increase. We’re expecting anywhere from 7 to 8 million Latinos for this election, which would be significant.

What do you attribute that uptick to? Are we getting savvier about the fact that midterm elections are just as important as presidential elections, if not more?

I think that yes, we are getting savvier. And organizations are also learning more how to do outreach and talk better to the Latino community. The other thing is that the Latino population is growing. We have a whole new influx every year of new Latino voters. We have 52,000 Latino youths turning 18 every month that we need to reach about the importance of voting.

What has Voto Latino done to try to get Latinos to the polls?

We’ve been working peer-to-peer, we’re on the ground in key states talking face to face with Latinos. A study done in '08 found that when one Latino voter talks to another Latino voter about the issues they care about—housing, jobs, education, health care—that undecided voter is almost twice as likely to go to the polls than if no one talked to them. It’s powerful. We’re also doing phone banking and sending people text reminders, because we found that if we send Latinos a text reminder on the day of election, the chances that they will go to the polls increases by 9 percent. It’s a matter of finding the best practices.

Did the Pew poll take the wind out of your sails? Did it have a negative effect on Latinos?

The biggest thing is that it didn’t tell the whole story. So someone reading that who doesn’t have someone interpreting it for them could say, "Oh well maybe we shouldn’t go to the polls." But it also came out a month ago and in an election cycle, one month might as well be a year. It gave us a lot of time to identify who is not voting, who we need to target and who we need to have conversations with. We registered over 10,000 voters in the last month alone.

Everyone comes out to vote in presidential elections, but tell us about the importance of midterm elections—local, state and congressional.

Local elections are more important. These are the individuals who will be immediately able to decide what kind of taxes will be on your home, what taxes go back to your school board, who is going to pick up your garbage and whether that gets done on time. Those are real critical issues.

But the reason this particular election is critically important is twofold: One, is that you have more than 30 gubernatorial races going on, and the other is that these races will decide the new congressional districts for 2012. All of a sudden we are going to see a systemic shift in what the electoral map looks like. They’re going to draw new congressional districts in Latino-heavy neighborhoods, they’re going to remove some, they’re going to identify who is going to be the next congressional member in places we didn’t see Latino representation before. For example, South Carolina, Texas, Florida, Indiana, Georgia, they’re all poised to get 1-3 additional congressional chairs, which is huge. So it’s really important that Latinos are present, so when they start redrawing these congressional districts, they’ll see that these people voted, so they need to be at the table.

What do you think of groups like Latinos for Reform, who just came out and flat out told Latinos not to bother voting as a protest?

As someone who has been working in this field now for almost 10 years really trying to get Latinos to participate because it’s critically important for our country and for our representation, I think Latinos for Reform did a disservice. And the fact that it just came out that Robert de Posada, the founder, not only told Latinos not to vote but exercised his own right and voted, is hypocritical. I have no problem with people voicing their own opinion, but don’t be hypocritical and tell our community to suppress their democratic ability and their voice.

Would you say that sounds condescending, sort of like, ‘You’re not smart enough to make this decision, but I am one Latino who can vote correctly?’

Not only was it condescending, but it assumed that the only issue that Latinos cared about was immigration. While immigration is very important to our community, the driving factors of why we need to go to the polls right now is jobs, education, the environment—all of those are going to be decided in the next congressional calendar.

There were reports last week saying that Latino voters could really swing this election if we come out to vote. Do you think that’s true?

Every year, everyone asks, ‘What’s the October surprise [an event late in the election campaign that changes the outcome of an election]?’ And I think this year it’s the Latino vote. And the surprise is going to be that we’re going to come out to the polls more than people expected. And that is a good thing for us.