The Morning Call (Sunday)

Working to have ‘a voice’

Many local Hispanics stayed home despite historic voter turnout

- By Tom Shortell

Voters across the Lehigh Valley had strong opinions about President Donald J. Trump, driving turnout to historic levels in this month’s election. But in a region where Hispanics are becoming a larger share of the population, turnout in their neighborho­ods dipped, a Morning Call review found.

The Morning Call identified 19 census tracts in the Lehigh Valley that are major

ity Hispanic and roughly aligned with voting districts in Lehigh or Northampto­n counties. These neighborho­ods made up most of Center City Allentown, parts of east Allentown, south Bethlehem and Bethlehem’s 15th Ward 3rd District — home of the Marvine Pembroke housing developmen­t.

Collective­ly, voter turnout in these 19 districts was 56.4%, significan­tly lower than Lehigh County’s 72.7% turnout and Northampto­n County’s 74.9% turnout.

The low figure isn’t a major surprise. Turnout in these neighborho­ods — which include some of the lowest-income communitie­s in the Lehigh Valley — has historical­ly trailed the rest of the region. But with the Latino population growing, leaders in that community fear the region isn’t hearing from an increasing­ly large share of its populace. The U.S. Census estimated in 2018 that Hispanics made up 19% of the region’s population.

“We believe it’s important to have a voice. Many issues are important to everyone — business leaders, people in the suburbs,” said Jose Rosado, vice president of the Alianza LV political action committee. “The question is, ‘Howdo those issues affect the Latino community differentl­y?’ Our perspectiv­e, our concerns are not necessaril­y going to be discussed or considered.”

COVID-19 challenges

Voters everywhere faced new hurdles this year with the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, but Hispanics may have been hit harder than other groups. Lehigh Valley Latinos are more likely to live in poverty and rent their homes than other demographi­c groups, according to census data compiled by the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission. Because they are more vulnerable, they may have been less able to weather the hardships of the economic downturn.

“We have a lot of voters who have a hierarchy of needs,” said Ivan Garcia, the civic engagement director for Make the Road PA. “HowamI supposed to think about voting when I’m about to get evicted? I’m not going to worry about my voter registrati­on if I don’t even have food to eat.”

Even when people expressed an interest in voting, Garcia and others ran into new challenges. The mail-in ballot rules were difficult to follow for even English-speaking voters, thanks to the ballots being new and court decisions that changed the election process during the campaign. The system may have frustrated some Spanish-speaking voters enough to give up on the mail-in ballots altogether.

But because Hispanics in the Lehigh Valley are more transient than other demographi­c groups, they may not have been able to vote in person easily, either. For example, if someone lost their job and could no longer afford an apartment, they may have moved out-of-state to live with family elsewhere.

“I think if we were not in a pandemic, I’d think turnout should have been higher,” Garcia said. “It’s a sad reality. A lot of our folks are out there trying to figure things out on a day-by-day basis.”

Political organizing in the pandemic was another challenge. Voting is an important cultural touchstone for many Americans, a tradition passed through the generation­s as much as a civic right. That’s not necessaril­y the case for many Hispanics. To court the Hispanic vote, it’s important for political operations to conduct outreach and canvass Hispanic neighborho­ods, Garcia and Rosado said.

But those outreach efforts were often muted this year thanks to the pandemic. While Trump continued to hold large rallies, including one in Hanover Township, Northampto­n County, other candidates relied more on social media than in-person gatherings. Make The Road, Garcia’s nonprofit that attempts to empower minorities, didn’t canvass neighborho­ods. Instead, the group attempted to reach people by phone, but those efforts were limited to numbers they had on file, he said.

“Those are the voters who fell through the cracks,” he said.

Courting the vote

Both Rosado and Garcia said the turnout wasn’t helped by the fact that leading Democratic candidates on the ballot failed to court the Hispanic vote this year. That may explain why Biden didn’t do as well in most of these voting districts as Hillary Clinton did in 2016.

For example, Allentown’s Ward 8 District 5 and Ward 8 District 6 are about 77.9% Hispanic, according to the most recent census estimates. These two districts gave Biden 74% of its votes this Election Day, according to unofficial election results from Lehigh County. Clinton, however, carried almost 83% of the vote in the same wards four years earlier.

Biden outperform­ed Clinton in only one of the 19 Hispanic-majority census tracts, the western edge of south Bethlehem. Here, he captured 0.65% of the vote more than Clinton.

Turnout in these districts also slipped compared to 2016. In that race, the same 19 voting districts had a 57.9% turnout compared to this year’s 56.4%.

Rosado said his PAC reached out to the Biden campaign and U.S. Rep. Susan Wild, looking for resources to mobilize the Hispanic community. Neither campaign came through, with Biden’s team saying they wanted to invest in communitie­s that had higher historic turnout, Rosado said.

Rosado said Trump is deeply unpopular in the Hispanic community, but that’s not enough to earn Democratic candidates a vote. Many people will choose to stay home if they don’t have a candidate whom they can identify with or who speaks to their needs. He noted the organizati­on Lehigh Valley Latinos For Trump did make campaign efforts in the region, and their work may have paid off.

“Is it the Democratic Party is taking us for granted? I think as the Latino community becomes more informed, more educated about elected offices, there’s an opportunit­y for the Republican Party to try and engage the Latino community,” Rosado said.

Tim Ramos, a former Allentown mayoral candidate who worked on behalf of the Lehigh Valley Latinos for Trump group, did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story.

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