Mesa college student Dana Reeve embodies the kind of breakthrough that Hispanic civic groups have been seeking for decades.
The 21-year-old Latina has been touched by the passion of this year’s presidential campaign.
She registered as an independent in time for the Nov. 2 general election.
But Reeve also personifies the frustration of Hispanic activists and observers who struggle to understand why Latinos aren’t fulfilling their political potential as Arizona’s fastest-growing ethnic group. Reeve hasn’t requested an early ballot, and between her job and her studies, can only say she will try to make it to the polls on election day.
Reeve said she’s not sure her vote would make any difference.
"I started watching VH1, MTV and the news, and they all started sounding the same," Reeve said. "Like whoever I go vote for, it will be the same outcome."
Historically, Hispanics register and vote in lower numbers than other groups of adults. Largely of Mexican descent, Arizona Hispanics haven’t embraced American politics as easily or as quickly, regardless of whether they were born here or recently immigrated and became U.S. citizens.
Activists and the presidential campaigns of George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry want the public to believe that gap will close this year as they devote more resources than ever to bring Hispanics into the election process. Several voter-registration groups report they have met or exceeded their goals for the 2004, adding hundreds of thousands of new voters to the rolls.
But as Reeve demonstrates, signing up for a voter-registration card isn’t the same as actually casting a vote for president. And some independent experts say they don’t believe anyone is appealing specifically to Arizona Hispanic voters this year.
"I just haven’t seen it, and I’ve asked other people too, and it’s their sense as well," said Lisa Magana, assistant professor of Chicana/o studies at Arizona State University. "In particular, I think the Democratic Party has taken Latinos for granted."
The Tribune went door-to-door in some of the older, predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods of central Mesa and downtown Chandler to gauge the impact of the nonpartisan, voter-registration drives that have targeted those areas.
Reporters found anecdotal evidence that, in fact, many residents had not been contacted by voter outreach workers, and many are confused by the voting process. And, they say, they are so busy working to support their families that they have little time to think about politics, let alone have the time to vote.
Samuel Chacon, 21, of Chandler said he’s not registered to vote despite years of media campaigns by the Secretary of State’s Office and nonprofit groups such as the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project. When interviewed last week, Chacon thought he still had time to register to vote in the presidential election; that deadline was Oct. 4.
"I didn’t know how to, I just didn’t have time," Chacon said. "I work two jobs."
The numbers certainly are discouraging for those who believe such a large portion of the Arizona population should be active players in our democracy.
Hispanic voter registration has been 10 to 17 percentage points lower than non-Hispanics in the last three presidential elections, according to figures complied by the National Association of Latino Elected Officials.
Hispanics face more barriers to participation, political experts say. The most obvious is that immigrants aren’t eligible unless they obtain U.S. citizenship. Rodolfo Espino, an ASU assistant professor of political science, said the best estimates are that 40 percent of Hispanic adults are legal residents who aren’t citizens or they are illegal immigrants.
New Hispanic citizens frequently don’t use English as their primary language. While election materials have been printed in Spanish for nearly 30 years, neither government officials nor political groups are doing enough to get that material into their hands, Espino said.
"Language minority voters still face a significant hurdle in participating. They have to expand a lot of their own individual level initiative to make sure they get registered and voting, which is something us native language English speakers failure to recognize," Espino said.
And even Hispanics born in the United States tend to be poorer and less educated than other ethnic groups, traditional signs they will be less likely to vote, Espino said.
There’s no easy way to target only Hispanic residents for voter-registration drives, which forces campaigns and activist groups to expend resources in areas that often don’t produce results. The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, went into central Mesa this year as one of several Hispanicdominated areas where the group expected to enroll new voters.
Carmen Arias, director of the group’s voter drive, said it signed up only about 100 households between Main Street and Southern Avenue and between Center Street and Stapley Drive, the neighborhoods also visited by the Tribune.
"Central Mesa was not good for us," Arias said. "What we hit in central Mesa was not citizenship. One thing to say is that all of the Hispanic citizens that we approached . . . were registered. So civic responsibility was there. Regretfully, everyone else we talked to were resident aliens and we’re not able to register (them)."
In mid-September, Democratic operatives from across the country spent a week traveling Arizona by bus to register Hispanics. The tour included a Saturday stop at a Food City grocery store at Southern Avenue and Mesa Drive, where they signed up Jorge Corrales, 37, of Mesa.
"Any kind of change is going to depend on (Hispanics’) vote," Corrales said in Spanish.
But most of the people stopped by dozens of Democratic volunteers armed with registration forms said they weren’t eligible to vote.
THOUSANDS OF NEW VOTERS
Still, the activist groups claim they were more successful in Phoenix, Tucson and other parts of the state. Sam Esquivel, state director for the League of United Latin American Citizens, estimates their combined efforts resulted in 250,000 newly registered Hispanic voters.
Esquivel and other activists say they are convinced more Hispanics will cast ballots this year because the race is so close between Bush and Kerry nationwide, and huge questions about Iraq, homeland security and the economy loom over the campaign.
"I see a major big number that is going to turn out this year, because of what is at stake," Esquivel said. "Things were calm before and there wasn’t that much really, really impacting or affecting the Hispanic community as it is now. We are facing a lot of things with immigration reform and the economy. They see the need they have get out there and make their vote count."
Roberto Sanchez, 27, of Mesa said he’s looking forward to his first chance to vote for president since he became a citizen in 2001.
"The people who we elect are the ones who make the decisions for the rest of us," Sanchez said. "It’s important for us to have a say in who gets elected."
But other people remain unconvinced. Gerardo Rocha, 61, of Mesa, came to the United States from Nicaragua 26 years ago and never has gone to the polls.
"There isn’t a politician that would be good enough to vote for," Rocha, a school bus driver in Phoenix, said in Spanish. "(President) Kennedy was one of the only ones that had the right qualities, but look what happened to him, he was shot."
BOOST FOR DEMOCRATS
Democrats believe a successful push to deliver more Hispanic votes could propel Kerry to the White House.
Traditionally, Hispanics tend to vote for Democratic candidates. So, in theory, a heavy Hispanic turnout would boost Kerry’s chances to overtake Bush.
On the day of the presidential debate in Tempe, Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe announced that Arizona was part of a four-state Western strategy to target Hispanic voters in places where Kerry and Bush are relatively close. The strategy includes Spanish radio and television ads and around-the-clock phone banking from bilingual volunteers.
"We have had the most effective, the most aggressive, Hispanic outreach program in the history of the Democratic party," McAuliffe insisted Oct. 13. "We have never done what we’re doing today. Never."
But the Bush-Cheney ‘04 campaign claims to be fighting just as hard for Hispanic votes. The campaign has aired its own Spanish ads and appointed Hispanics to key positions, such as former state schools superintendent Jaime Molera as the campaign chairman for Maricopa County.
About 30 percent of Hispanic voters supported the president in a statewide poll released Sept. 27 by Phoenixbased Behavior Research Center. That’s only slightly less than the number of Hispanic votes that Bush received in 2000 when he defeated Al Gore in Arizona by 6 percentage points.
"As they move up in education and income, culturization, occupation and so on, they begin to look more and more like the average person in Arizona," said Earl de Berge, the center’s research director. "My guess, frankly, is the Latino vote will be even closer in that in our poll. My guess is Bush will be at 35 percent (support)."
Still, many Hispanics believe neither campaign has been effective this year. Sanchez, who lives in a Mesa neighborhood targeted for a registration drive, said he doesn’t expect many of his neighbors to vote at all.
"Mainly because they are not familiar with the process," Sanchez said. "That may be one of the biggest hindrances. Maybe they feel a little intimidated . . . for some it’s a language barrier, or they think ‘Maybe I won’t be able to understand how to fill out a ballot.’ "
Arias said her organization has been returning to central Mesa and other targeted neighborhoods since Oct. 4 to help newly registered voters overcome those fears. She said her group will make up to eight attempts to speak with those people and convince them to sign "count on me" forms pledging to vote.
Arias believes the effect of signing a voter pledge, particularly in the Hispanic community, is to reinforce to people that they have an obligation to actually get out and vote. "You may be sitting there on election day thinking, ‘Nah, I don’t want to get up. I’m watching television. Oh, I signed that stupid form. I had better go vote.’ That’s what we’re hoping will happen anyway."
But Mesa Hispanics interviewed by the Tribune said they haven’t been contacted by the group or anyone else.
Karla Olono, 24, a Mexican-born U.S. citizen, said she has only seen and heard the Spanish campaign ads.
"I don’t have much information. The Latinos are not being reached," Olono said. "I don’t even know where to register or where to go from there."