OGDEN — During a recent voter registration initiative in Ogden, Priscilla Martinez came face-to-face with the indifference in the Latino community that she’s trying to battle.
Two would-be voters declined her invitation to register, saying they didn’t think participating in the political process would make a difference. “They felt like their vote didn’t matter. I tried to convince them that every vote counts,” said Martinez, who helped organize the registration drive.
According to U.S. Census Bureau figures, Latinos account for nearly a third of Ogden’s population, 32.5% of the people here to be precise, and 18.7% of Weber County’s overall population. That makes them easily the biggest racial or ethnic minority, and the segment continues to grow.
Community advocates like Martinez, though, say the group’s political presence is hardly commensurate with their share of the population, and with elections looming, she’s pushing for change. She’s launched a local chapter of Voto Latino, a national nonprofit organization formed to encourage voter registration among Latinos and to empower them, and she’s trying to counter the apathy she saw during that registration effort on Aug. 29.
“I want to be heard, seen and represented in a manner that is respectful and with dignity,” said Enrique Romo, a member of the Voto Latino Ogden board who helped out on Aug. 29. The voting process can seem intimidating and foreign to some in the community, coming from mixed-status families made up of immigrants and U.S. citizens, and education is key in helping demystify electoral matters.
As is, Luis Lopez, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Mexico and a member of the Ogden City Council, doesn’t think Latinos are fairly represented within the community’s existing power structure. He’s perhaps the only Latino in elected office across Weber County and he welcomes the Voto Latino effort, especially with race issues such a focus of national debate. “Now people are sensing and feeling you probably need to get out there and vote and voice your opinion,” he said.
Terri McCulloch, president of the Weber County League of Women Voters, which also advocates for voter participation and involvement, also welcomes Voto Latino Ogden. The Hispanic community can face language barriers, particularly newly minted Americans still learning English, and registering can seem daunting to someone unfamiliar with the process.
“Our community is made up of a lot of Latinos and a lot of times, their voice isn’t heard,” McCulloch said.
Beyond that, Latinos may have better luck encouraging other Latinos to register. The League of Women Voters also promotes voter registration, but McCulloch noted that she could be limited in her ability to connect with the Latino community. “Here I am, this white woman. That’s what they see,” she said.
Voto Latino here has more registration efforts in the works, including one on Tuesday at the Midtown Community Health Center at 2240 Adams Ave. in Ogden. It goes from 4-6 p.m.
VOICE LOUD’That Latinos don’t participate as actively in the political process as others, particularly non-Hispanic whites, is borne out by the numbers.
Latinos accounted for 7.8% of the eligible voting population in Utah as of 2014, 147,000 of the 1.9 million total, according to Pew Research Center data. But gauging by 2016 Census Bureau figures, their participation rate lagged dramatically behind that of non-Hispanic whites. Just 38.5% of the eligible Latino voting population in Utah was registered to vote four years ago and actual turnout among the eligible population was 35%, according to the Census Bureau.
Among non-Hispanic whites, meantime, 72.8% of the eligible population was registered and turnout was 64.2%, “meaning whites in Utah voted at nearly double the rate of Latinos,” said Hope Zitting-Goeckeritz, executive director of Voterise.
The disparity was similar in the 2018 mid-term elections.
“A big thing is, we live in a democracy, and we can’t really say that if every eligible voter isn’t participating. Make your voice loud, however you want to,” said Zitting-Goeckeritz. Voterise is a nonprofit group that promotes registration across the state and it has worked with Voto Latino.
Among the reasons for the disparity, Zitting-Goeckeritz said, is unfamiliarity with the registration process for some Latinos, particularly those who are naturalized citizens or children of immigrants who themselves may not be versed in the system. Language, too, is a barrier. Indeed, 96.1% of eligible non-Hispanic white Utah voters in 2014 came from households in which only English was spoken, while the figure was just 51.2% for Latinos, according to the Pew Research Center. Spanish was spoken at 48.5% of the households of eligible Latino voters.
“Unfortunately, our country doesn’t make voting accessible to many, whether it be poll access or translation of ballots,” said Viviana Felix. She’s another member of the Voto Latino board and the diversity affairs officer for the city of Ogden.
Martinez said Voto Latino takes a nonpartisan stance. Some passing the Voto Latino registration booth on Aug. 29 asked about the political inclination of the group, she said, and she told them it was neutral. The event was held outside Rancho Market, a grocery store on Washington Boulevard that caters to the Hispanic population.
Romo, for his part, emphasized the importance of augmenting participation, of making sure Latinos have a voice in the political process. “Voting for minorities didn’t come easy, and far too many people died for us to have that privilege, so I don’t take it for granted,” he said.
More dramatically, he expressed concern that “our humanity is being erased on a daily basis” and warned that shying from voting and political engagement could have adverse effects in the Latino community over the long haul. “If we don’t vote, we could lose so much — our rights, our lifestyles, our families, our jobs, our education, our homes, the environment, our finances, our dignity and our humanity,” he said in an email.
Just six people ended up registering at the Aug. 29 Voto Latino event, but Martinez described it as an incremental process. “I think this is a first step for the Latino Community to get their voices heard,” she said.