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Groups taking unusual steps to educate Latinos on how to vote

Jul 20, 2016

You’ll hear the phrase “build the wall” repeated often during this week’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

But it’s that type of rhetoric that may cost the party some votes in Michigan.

Voting for the first time can be intimidating.

So to make it a little easier, a small group of people gathered in a community center gymnasium on Saginaw’s south side recently to vote for their favorite Coney dog.

“So there’s One, two, three hot dogs … coney dogs to choose from,” organizer Debbie Vasquez tells the crowd.

This is more than just an experiment in hot-dog democracy.  It’s about learning the process of voting.

“When it’s time to vote, I need you to have your ID with you, OK.   If you don’t have your ID, that’s OK. There’s a process for this,” Vasquez tells the group of first-time voters.

Dan Soza is the Michigan state vice president of the group Latino Leaders for the Enhancement of Advocacy and Development, or LLEAD.  

They helped organize the hot dog voting workshop. 

Soza admits Michigan’s small Latino population has voted in even smaller numbers in the past, but they are working to change that this year, with voter education, registration drives, and plans to get people to the polls.

Soza says the political rhetoric in the 2016 campaign is motivating Latinos this year to get involved.

“We’re not telling folks how to vote,” insists Soza, “But certainly for some of us seeing the rhetoric in the media, by some candidates…as driven some of those efforts.”

One phrase seems to irk many Latino voters the most. 

“We need to build that damn wall,” State Senator Joe Hune, R-Hamburg, told a conservative political meeting last month in Howell. The line drew loud applause.

Hune is not only a delegate to this week’s Republican National Convention, he was also a member of the party platform committee that last week in Cleveland voted to put building a wall on the southern border in the party’s platform.

“This is such a fundamental component of the Trump campaign,” Hune said after the meeting, “I think it’s a large, very populist issue too -- securing our border.”

But while it’s a message connecting with many white conservatives, it’s leaving many Latinos feeling excluded.

Saginaw Valley State University political scientist Jesse Donahue says efforts to get out the Latino vote may be most visible in southeast Michigan.

“What isn’t clear is how far down the ballot that impact is going to go, but it looks like they are going to have a fairly large impact this time,” says Donahue.

Debbie Vasquez with LLEAD says the August primary will be a dry run of sorts for the November general election. She says they plan on following up with Latino voters to see if they voted and ask about any problems with election officials.

“If they’re having a hard time there ... our voters ... I want to make sure somebody knows about that so they can fix that problem,” says Vasquez.

Knowing that kind of information may play a very important role in November. 

Especially if Michigan ends up being a swing state in November, the state’s largely Democrat-leaning Latino voters could play a much bigger role in the outcome than they have in the past.