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Nearly half of eligible Latino voters are millennials

Young Latinos eligible to vote are 44 percent of the projected 27.3 million Latino voters in the U.S. But will they actually vote?|

Nearly half of all Latinos who will be eligible to vote in the 2016 presidential election are millennials, a fact that offers significant political opportunity for Latinos if only their youngest voters would vote more.

According to a recent Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data, a staggering 44 percent of the record 27.3 million Latinos eligible to vote in U.S. elections this fall are millennials, the wave of young people who grew up in the Internet age. But only 38 percent of Latino millennials voted in the 2012 election, a far smaller share than black or white millennials - 55 percent and 48 percent, respectively, Pew noted.

Latino leaders in Sonoma County say the Pew study is a wake-up call for the local Latino community, where efforts to create a culture of voting could pay huge political dividends.

“The only way we’re going to grow as millennials is to get involved and really care about what’s happening in your local community,” said Herman G. Hernandez, a Sonoma County school board trustee.

Hernandez, 29, a millennial who was elected to the county school board in 2014, said he didn’t care much about politics and local government until he turned 25. He then discovered the “importance of local government” and how much more relevant it was to his own experience and his community. Hernandez also was inspired by his father, who is president of the county’s largest Latino leadership group, Los Cien. He said his father, Herman J. Hernandez, has worked to motivate local Latinos to become more involved in their communities and to run for local elected offices, such as school boards and city councils.

The large share of Latino millennials eligible to vote is a reflection of how young the U.S.-born Latino population is when compared to other ethnic and racial groups, the Pew study said. The median age among the country’s 35 million U.S. Latinos is 19, and Latino youth will drive growth among Latino eligible voters for the next 20 years.

In recent years, more than 800,000 U.S.-born Latinos have reached adulthood each year.

Engaging young Latino voters is one of several priorities this year for the North Bay Organizing Project, which works to empower low-income and disadvantaged communities.

To make matters more difficult, the rate of voter registration in Sonoma County is lower among Latinos than the statewide figure, according to Sacramento GOP political consultant Mike Madrid, who came to Sonoma County in October for a presentation before Los Cien. Madrid said Latinos make up 25 percent of the county’s population but 8 percent of its 240,000 voters.

And registering Latinos to vote is only the beginning of any initiative to increase their political power, said Omar Medina, North Bay Organizing Project president. Getting people to actually vote is a much more difficult task, he said.

“Just getting them registered doesn’t do much if they don’t vote,” Medina said.

Voter registration is the “one-night stand” of the electoral process, Medina said, adding that a longer-term commitment is needed to make sure people show up at the polls. To that end, the organizing project put together a voter engagement team about a year ago.

The group visits local residents door-to-door and begins a dialogue where the residents themselves identify key issues affecting their lives, such as affordable housing, low wages and education. Voter engagement workers then identify the nexus between those issues and local government.

“We go door to door and instead of trying to push our agenda, we ask people what is going on in their lives and get people to talk about their experience,” said Annie Dobbs-Kramer, voter engagement coordinator for the organizing project.

Dobbs-Kramer said politicians traditionally target likely voters, the wealthy and homeowners. Her program is trying to reach “people who are largely ignored by the political process.”

Medina said one of the main objectives is to convince young Latinos that they have a voice in selecting who represents their interests. He said that Latino communities in Southern California are further along in that process, as exemplified by the number of state Assembly members from that region. The shift is only now beginning in Northern California, he said.

“It’s going to shift potential, the power in the region,” Medina said. “That could shift the way we’re governed. That’s why it’s important. People that have a different life experience are increasing the number of votes to the point where it could decide who gets elected.”

Ana Lugo, a part of the voter engagement team, said her job will be to convince young people that voting is a privilege, one she doesn’t have. Lugo, 26, of Santa Rosa, came to the United States from Mexico when she was 12 and is not a U.S. citizen.

Lugo said that after potential voters identify the key issues that affect them, she helps explain how elected officials make decisions on those issues.

“It’s important for people to understand that when they vote they’re choosing to elect those people, and when they don’t they’re also making a choice,” she said.

Hernandez, the county school board trustee, said a “culture of voting” among Sonoma County’s Latinos is being fashioned, one that he predicted will gain momentum in the coming years.

“I commonly hear that when we get families that immigrate here, they don’t trust their home government so it’s harder for them to trust their local government here in the United States,” he said. “It’s important to build that culture of voting with first- and second-generation Latinos.”

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @renofish.

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