Macon, GA — Geovani Serrano often spends his time brainstorming new ways to get the Georgia Latino community connected. Canvassing door-to-door for the upcoming Georgia primary is a thing of the past thanks to coronavirus, replaced by phone banking events and virtual rounds of lotería (a traditional Spanish game of chance similar to bingo, but with pictures). The vibe is different, but it’s important for others to know that the Latino community is present, especially during a pandemic, Serrano says.
Navigating the pandemic hasn’t been easy for many in the Latino community. Some don’t have the option to work from home, which puts them more at risk for COVID-19, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Serrano also points out that despite paying taxes, undocumented members of the community and their families didn’t receive stimulus checks, making it even harder to support themselves financially. At least one person has died due to complications related to COVID-19 while in ICE custody in the state.
“That’s one of the reasons why it’s so important for us to participate in this election, to choose people who will voice our voice, and let them know that we’re here,” Serrano says.
“In these upcoming elections, we have the opportunity to elect a candidate that does not support these programs and, in that sense, protect our undocumented community,” Serrano says.
Serrano, 25, is a volunteer at Mijente, an organization that prides itself on being a national hub for Latinx and Chincanx organizing.
According to data from the Pew Research Center, Latinos are expected to be the largest racial or ethnic minority eligible to vote in this year’s election. And in some red states like Georgia, CIRCLE research predicts it’s possible that young Latino voters could swing the election.
Serrano makes about 150 calls per day to inform members of the community about Georgia’s upcoming presidential primary, which is set for June 9. He lets them know of the different ways they can participate, whether through early voting, absentee ballots or voting in person.
He posits that the George Floyd protests that have dominated the country for the past week will increase turnout to the polls, rather than deter voters. Some of his friends that are participating in the protests have already cast their ballots, and he knows they aren’t alone. He emphasized the importance of voters to take action at the polls and at local protests.
Latinos only make up 9.8% of Georgia’s population, but the community has grown fast. Latinos make up 2.3% of Georgia’s registered voter population as of 2016, which is three times the number of registered voters the community had in 2004. After mobilization efforts by Mijente and other organizations that nearly put Democratic nominee Stacey Abrams in the governor’s mansion, data from CIRCLE shows that youth voter turnout doubled in Georgia between 2014 and 2018 alone.
“Since Georgia has had a very fast-growing Latino population, and that’s been driving the population in some parts of the state … I think there’s really a huge opportunity for Latino and black youth to really be the drivers and decision-makers in what happens in Georgia,” said Abby Kiesa, director of impact at CIRCLE, a Tufts University center that studies young voters and civic engagement.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, it’s been hard for volunteers like Serrano to keep the community engaged, though.
On May 5, Mijente hosted its third annual Voto de Mayo event in which volunteers called Latinos across Georgia and North Carolina and registered them to vote. Before Covid-19, volunteers would travel all over the state to mobilize Latino voters, helping them register and explain why their vote matters.
“You can see it on their faces. They feel like they’re important,” Serrano says.
This year, Serrano has had to come up with ways to motivate the community from afar. This year’s Voto de Mayo was the largest phone bank in the organization’s history, with hundreds of volunteers reaching more than 5,704 people. But with that number comes a level of uncertainty.
“More people are reached, but at the same time, we don’t know how long they watch the webinar, or how long they were present in the workshop,” Serrano says.
Still, Latino organizations around the country aren’t giving up. In Texas, which has one of the largest eligible Latino voter populations in the country, Jolt is an organization that empowers young Latinos through political advocacy. It’s gotten creative to increase civic engagement through organized activities such as virtual volunteer hours, where groups get together online and call elected officials and demand online voter registration.
“Right now, our existence is being challenged through this global pandemic and this virus, which has no immediate cure,” said Antonio Arellano, Jolt’s interim executive director. “We know that if we fail to activate and mobilize voters, particularly through safe means, we will do our democracy a disservice.”
The Texas primary, which took place in early March, was “lively and competitive,” Arellano says. When it comes to garnering the Latino vote, Jolt has a track record of contributing to a 500% increase in youth voter turnout and a 250% increase in Latino voter turnout in 2018, he says. While it’s too early to say the exact numbers Jolt contributed to this year’s primary, the increase of younger voter participation is something Arellano feels good about.
“There’s an upward trend in voter participation in Texas, and it has been felt since 2018 in unprecedented ways. … More young people of color are getting involved, which will ultimately change the politics of Texas,” Arellano says.
The main challenge is still COVID-19 since the communities they’re mobilizing are the same ones disproportionately affected by the pandemic. It’s why the organization is working to make sure the state recognizes a need for alternative processes that allow them to vote safely. However, the push to expand voting by mail in Texas hasn’t been successful.
“They recognize that if they do make it easier for more people to vote, they will lose,” Arellano says. “We’re trying to do our best to make sure that we’re educating our community as well as our elected officials on the need for alternative measures that protect people.”
The vote-by-mail system in place doesn’t automatically solve all problems, however. Georgia is one of several states that has expanded its system to limit the spread of the virus. In past elections, young people without college experience were less likely to use it, Kiesa says. According to a CIRCLE study, young people of color without college experience were even more unlikely to vote by mail than whites who didn’t go to college.
“We are very concerned regarding some of these other methods of voting if people aren’t comfortable going to polling locations in November,” Kiesa says. “We think there’s a lot of room for young people, organizations and other groups still need to make sure they understand how vote by mail and online voter registration works.”
Ultimately, Serrano is hopeful that Latino voters will show up to the polls after all. He remembers the way members of the Latino community who were ineligible to vote went out and encouraged others to use their voting privileges in years past. It was an impactful strategy that he believes will transcend from one election to the next.
“For me, it’s really important that community members show up to the polls and show that we’re united,” Serrano says. “We’re going to show the Latino power here in the state of Georgia as well as in other states … to protect our communities and also to advance our country further.”