Latino voter registration in Texas is surging
2012 levels surpassed along border and in big cities despite short funding
WASHINGTON — Voter registrations among Latinos are well ahead of 2012 along the Texas border and in the state’s largest counties — likely fueled in part by Donald Trump’s incendiary comments about people of Mexican heritage — despite a lag in funding to nonpartisan groups signing up voters.
Bexar County officials in San Antonio reported crossing the 1 million mark of registered voters for the first time, an additional 30,000 people this year and 80,000 more than in the 2012 presidential election.
“That’s the size of a small town we’ve registered this year,” said Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacquelyn Callanen.
She attributed the expanding electorate to population growth and to an election season she termed “non-conventional.”
Harris County already has posted a 150,000 increase since 2012, thanks in part to the addition of between 1,200 and 1,500 newly naturalized citizens added each month to the voter rolls, Harris County Voter Registrar Mike Sullivan said.
Remarks by Trump, the presumptive GOP presi-
dential nominee, combined with proposals for mass deportation, a border wall and curbs on remittances immigrants send back to Mexico have seeded what Latinos hope and expect to be explosive growth in their election-year influence.
Many Latino leaders can cite the date Trump emerged — June 16, 2015 — with his “drugs … crime … rapists” allegations, providing more than a year for anger in immigrant populations to take root.
Nonetheless, groups devoted to mobilizing Latinos contend that despite the many newly registered voters, they see complacency by donors and Democratic Party leaders.
“Don’t count on Donald Trump being the guy who’s going to get people out to vote in November,” said Ben Monterroso, executive director of Californiabased Mi Familia Vota.
Mi Familia, which has offices in San Antonio, Houston and Dallas, has a goal of registering 95,000 people this year across the country. The group is less than a third of the way there and at least 10,000 behind the pace of four years ago.
At this point in 2012, the National Council of La Raza had significant operations in Florida, Colorado and Nevada and lesser programs in Texas and four other states. Last week, the group was fully up and running only in Florida.
“We have one-fifth the funding we had back then even though Latinos are the talk of the town,” said Clarissa Martinez-de-Castro, the La Raza Council’s deputy vice president.
Part of the problem, leaders say, are planning delays due to the latebreaking race for the Democratic nomination. They say, too, that donor money that used to be spent on nonpartisan registration is landing in partisan political operations.
“A lot of it is flowing directly into PACs or focused on ads and mail,” Martinez-de-Castro said, “rather than the retail work and the elbow grease it takes to bring new voters into the equation.”
In the runup to California’s June 7 primary, news accounts trumpeted the new potency of Hispanic voters, but the San Antonio-based William C. Velasquez Institute, which studies Latino voting trends, says those assessments were overblown.
After analyzing California data based on Spanish surnames, the institute concluded that Latino registration had grown by a “quite sluggish” 3.1 percent since April 2015.
“These new data counter the all-too-prevalent narrative that Latinos are being mobilized by Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant narrative,” wrote institute president Antonio Gonzalez.
Funding from Kochs
In Texas, the Mission-based Libre Initiative is among groups unworried about resources to reach out to Latino voters through social service and education programs — though not yet voter registration, executive director Daniel Garza said.
The 5-year-old organization has received millions of dollars from conservative donors Charles and David Koch to provide a counterweight to left-leaning groups mobilizing Latinos. Libre has 80 paid staff and 50 contracted workers in 10 mostly battleground states and soon may begin operations in two or three more, Garza said. “What we’re doing is engaging Latinos in a different way than the left is,” he said.
He labeled some of Trump’s assertions and policies as “divisive and unproductive” and promised to function as “an honest broker” in the months ahead.
“But when he gets it right, we’ll praise him for it,” Garza added, noting a list of potential Supreme Court nominees Trump produced in May.
In Texas, Libre began operating recently in El Paso, buttressing offices or staff in San Antonio, Houston, Dallas and Austin.
In deep-red Texas, which has an estimated 1.4 million unregistered Latinos of voting age, some groups are feeling left out of the national game. Hillary Clinton may be trailing Trump by single digits in Texas, as a poll by the University of Texas at Austin found last week. And Texas, thanks to Latino voters, may one day become the Electoral College gamechanger that Democrats crow about.
Tension every 4 years
For now, though, organizations such as the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project, which focuses on new and first-time voters, say they are starved for funds.
“In most cases, there is very little money falling into Texas for voter registration,” said Lydia Camarillo, Southwest’s vice president.
Her organization is the nation’s oldest nonpartisan Latino voter group and is credited with registering 2.5 million voters since the mid-1970s. At this time four years ago, Southwest was fully staffed in Texas and seven other states.
That is not the case now, said Camarillo, who attributes delays to a belief by some would-be donors that Trump alone will energize Latinos. Others have calculated that their money can do more good in traditional battlegrounds like Ohio, she said.
The tension felt in Texas this season is one that surfaces every four years between groups turning out voters in November and those seeking to build long-term power for Latinos.
Mi Familia’s Monterroso lamented what he calls the “roman candle” approach to Latinos.
“If you’re just going to come in three months before the election and see the people who are lucky to be in a targeted area, that is not building political power,” he said.
Remarks by Donald Trump have mobilized some Latino voters, but groups devoted to getting out the vote see complacency by donors and party leaders.