My Latino Midterm Election: North Carolina

latino_vote-TheWiseLatinaClub The conventional wisdom is that midterm elections are low turnout and those who do show up to cast ballots trend older, white, and more conservative. For November 2014, the slim Democratic majority in the Senate is in jeopardy, with key Senate races so tight, pollsters, data wonks, and political scientists such as Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight and the University of Virginia's Larry Sabato have whipped out their political crystal balls, sounding the death knell for Democrats. Indeed, powerful factors include turnout as I already mentioned, historical patterns including a president's party historic track record of tanking at the midterms, quality of candidates, and each party's investment at the grassroots level to mobilize the vote.

Absent from most of this debate is the potential influence that so-called new voters such as Latinos can have on a tight race. I can already hear the valid criticism that this group's voting record does not match its numbers. While true and confirmed by the 2012 Presidential election where 11.2 million eligible Hispanic voters cast ballots and 12.1 eligibles did not, voter registration deadlines are looming making it a prime time to revisit the demographic growth of this community and voter mobilization in local settings. This is crucial, especially for the midterms where turnout is low and contests are tight. Truly, every vote counts.

In campaign mano a mano combat, what is the impact of 1,000, 5,000, or 10,000 votes? It may seem like nothing to the media and Washington, D.C. Beltway elite. But this could mean the difference between winning or losing and in every day terms, the difference between receiving--or not--money for infrastructure repairs such as road and classrooms. Poignantly for immigration advocates, it's the difference on one hand, between executive action or even comprehensive immigration reform and on the other hand, an executive delay or congressional standstill that denies millions reprieve from deportation.

My methodology is simple: I examine voter demographics based on the 2010 U.S. Census data from national and local research centers, as well as voter mobilization. This is important given the extraordinary growth of the Hispanic community in states that are not the "Usual Suspect" states of California, Texas, Florida, Illinois, and New York which have an historic sizable Hispanic population. The demographic explosion is occurring in "Unusual Suspect" states, especially in the Southeast--the location of some hot midterm contests.

North Carolina is where this series "My Latino Midterm Election" starts. Senator Kay Hagan is fighting off a challenge from Republican Thom Tillis. Between 2000 and 2010, the Tar Heel State experienced triple digit---111%--Hispanic growth.

The UNC Charlotte Urban Institute conducted the best research I found on this topic. Culling U.S. Census data, this research confirms not just that North Carolina Hispanics are urban, with notable growth in cities such as Winston-Salem, Raleigh, and Durham. In small cities and town across the state such as Siler City near the Greensboro Research Triangle Park area, the Latino population has dramatically increased. Why Siler City--the town best known as the retirement home and burial place of the actress Frances Bavier who played Aunt Bee on The Andy Griffin show? Like millions of immigrants before them, they go where their personal networks are strongest which cluster in areas like farmlands where they can find work. The ensuing demographic boom not only provides labor but sprouts a secondary economy to service this community in the form of bodegas, restaurants, and money transfer locations. At nearly half the approximate 9,000 residents, these immigrants have both transformed the face of Siler City and reversed its downward economic spiral.

Latinos strengthening a community they call home is a happy story but one that doesn't tell all its sides. Although Hispanic make up 9% of North Carolina's population, only 1.9% of registered voters are Latino. This community is entrepreneurial and contributes to its hometowns as the case study of Siler City proves. Why have candidates, local parties, voter mobilization and community groups not sought to register these North Carolinians to vote and then cast ballots?

An important clue is in the diversity and segmentation of the Hispanic community. The North Carolina Governor's Office of Hispanic/Latino Affairs released a report that dovetails with national data, showing that Mexicans comprise the lion's share of this southern state's Latino population. Therefore it follows that a sizable portion is not eligible to vote because they are not naturalized citizens. However, a couple of data points from the 2010 Census data arise: with native born youth making up the largest part of this subset of North Carolina residents, how many turned or will turn 18 by November 4? Then there's the Puerto Rican population which at 71,800 represents only 9% of North Carolina's Latino population. Still, they have no citizenship issues and therefore are immediately eligible to register to vote. With contests so tight, even a mobilized sliver of voters could determine a race's outcome.

The game changing impact of the sheer demographic growth and potential Latino voter mobilization is not going unnoticed. The 2014 Senate race is the biggest voter mobilization for a Senate contest and includes the aggressive use of Spanish-language media, especially ads, according to the National Journal. With this demographic data available for years, I'm just surprised it has taken Democrats, Hispanic community groups, and the media this long to focus on this crucial element of the ground game, waiting until just weeks before the election.

With the persistent gridlock of recent years, I heard among the D.C. media elite that elections, once thought to have consequences, now didn't. In other words, even though the GOP overwhelmingly lost to Barack Obama in 2012, the Republican held House defied the President by shutting down the government and slowing down or blocking legislation. In fact, huge consequences abound perhaps not for politicians but for the millions of Americans who have become the collateral damage of these political showdowns in the form of programs that don't get the funding needed to provide, in many cases, basic services.

Each election represents a chance for a re-do for all the stakeholders--for a candidate and party to reach and engage new voters and for these communities to become involved in a political process that affects their daily lives. That's where becoming informed and participating through voting comes in. In North Carolina, the voter registration deadline is 25 days before the date of an election or Friday, October 10, 2014--postmarked and preferably received by the State Board of Elections. MTV has a cool Voter's Self Defense Guide for 2014 with information for students and voter ID laws. More important for North Carolina residents is clicking here to view the State Board of Elections' requirements including eligibility and where you can register to vote, including libraries, post offices, and the DMV.

Elections--whether it's the Presidential election or the vote for school board--not only have consequences. Citizens have an opportunity to shape contests, candidates, political parties, policy, and how the practice affects their lives. But they must participate with the first step registering to vote.

Look out for more posts in the series "My Latino Midterm Election" where I'll focus on "Unusual Suspect" states that experienced a dramatic increase in their Hispanic population and where key races are too close to call.