Three weeks before Election Day, Latino leaders gathered outside of the James R. Thompson Center to promote an initiative to get people to the polls.
But the speakers promoting the “Vota Ya!” campaign weren’t surrounded by a crowd that would have typically gathered. Instead, speakers like Congressman Jesús “Chuy” García, D-Ill., spoke to cameras livestreaming the event.
It was another sign of how those pushing for voter participation in Chicago have been doing so while navigating multiple crises affecting the Latino community, ranging from the coronavirus pandemic to protecting immigrants from deportation.
“It’s been unprecedented,” García said. “I cannot recall another time in the past 50 years where we have been squeezed this hard by history and by people in power like we are in the present time. It’s been tough.”
Across the country, Latinos will be the largest racial or ethnic voting group this election, according to the Pew Research Center. In Illinois, Latinos make up about 17.5% of the state’s total population, and the community makes up about 11.6% of the state’s eligible voters, according to Pew.
Voting is already underway, and eligible voters in Chicago can still register to vote on the spot at an early voting location or at their designated precinct polling place on Election Day by showing two forms of identification, with at least one listing a current address. Voters can access a ballot in Spanish electronically or by paper.
And while much of the focus on Latino voters is in battleground states, García said Latino turnout in Illinois is important because the state will redraw its political maps next year.
“It’s really important to have a show of force to demonstrate the power of the Latino vote,” he said. “This is a message that is sent to the legislature which is responsible for redistricting.”
The election comes as Latinos are most concerned about the economy, health care and the coronavirus pandemic, according to survey from the Pew Research Center. In Chicago, Latinos make-up roughly half of the city’s COVID-19 cases.
In Back of the Yards, a group of people lined the brick wall of Casa Hidalgo on a recent Friday for a weekly food distribution from the Resurrection Project. David Louridas, senior policy and program manager, was armed with a tablet and bilingual flyers with information on how people can vote.
Though many of those served at the food drive are undocumented, he was hopeful people could pass on information to an eligible voter. One woman stopped him to ask him about early voting locations so she could tell her children.
“There is an understanding of the magnitude of this election and sense of urgency that they are feeling for this election that I, personally, haven’t seen through other elections,” Louridas said.
Within 10 minutes, the Resurrection Project ran out of supplies after handing out bags of food to 50 people. Many walked away with the flyers in hand.
Louridas had used the food drives to do outreach for the 2020 Census, but he shifted his focus to voter outreach in recent weeks.
In Little Village, Jocelyn Aranda Ortiz has spent the past couple of months going to food drives, school supply distributions and mask giveaways to do voter education. Aranda Ortiz, a junior at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is a fellow with Enlace Chicago and the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights and she has focused her efforts on Latino residents in Little Village and Black residents in North Lawndale.
She thinks it’s important for the two communities to demand equitable resources together. Similar calls for unity took place this summer following a wave of protests prompted by the death of George Floyd.
“I wanted to create a sense of solidarity between South and North Lawndale,” Aranda Ortiz said. “I wanted to bring back that narrative that we are one. People power is the strongest power that we are going to have.”
Latinos are contacted less often by campaigns than other voters. In Illinois, there is a risk of low-voter participation among Latinos. Since Illinois is a Democratic stronghold, federal races aren’t that competitive, and national politicians focus on other states, said Luis Ricardo Fraga, a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame. That’s why efforts to energize Latino voters are focused on competitive states like Arizona, Nevada and Florida.
And Latinos have tended to only become a topic of conversation 45 days before a major election, said Jaime Dominguez, a political science associate professor at Northwestern University. One difference was the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign which started doing outreach to Latino voters in Arizona a year before the primary, Dominguez said, explaining that has now become a model.
To increase voter participation among Latinos, Fraga said a cultural shift needs to happen by having political parties build an infrastructure with community groups. The efforts need to also focus on young Latinos, many of who were born in the U.S. and who won’t be as pressed on immigration issues.
“A very, very important source of growing Latino power may never be exercised because that culture hasn’t shifted,” Fraga said.
In Chicago’s Belmont-Cragin neighborhood, Margarita Gonzalez, 28, said she hadn’t been contacted by any campaigns. Gonzalez, who plans to vote on Election Day, has kept up with the election by watching the debates, seeing news on Latino-focused social media accounts and through voter resources provided through her job.
“There are not enough resources for Latino communities,” Gonzalez said, pointing out that her parents were asking her for help navigating early voting. She is also encouraging her 18-year-old nephew to vote.
When early voting in Chicago was extended to locations in each ward, Cesar Nunez, the associate director of Enlace Chicago, was able to cast his vote easily. He estimated there were about five people at the polling location, a contrast from the long lines reported in other parts of the city.
“There wasn’t any wait for me,” Nunez said. “It’s one of the harsh realities where people don’t come out to vote.”
Enlace is targeting about 15,000 to 20,000 potential voters in Little Village and North Lawndale by calling them and trying to get the person to commit to a voting plan, Nunez said. He estimates that three out of four calls go unanswered, but the people who do pick up seem to be engaged, Nunez said.
The Puerto Rican Agenda of Chicago joined other organizations across the country to call the growing Puerto Rican communities in Pennsylvania and Florida as part of a voter drive, said Mariana Osoria, the organization’s co-chair for its planning and public affairs committee.
They are zeroing in on those who left the island after Hurricane Maria and because of earthquakes in recent years, Osoria said. In Chicago, an estimated 2,000 people moved from Puerto Rico to the city because of the natural disasters, she said.
Osoria, who voted early, said she hasn’t seen much discussion during the election of issues that are important to her, like an independent audit of Puerto Rico’s debt or repealing the controversial Jones Act, which impacts shipments to the island.