In a classroom decorated with posters about constitutional amendments and U.S. presidents, Herman G. Hernandez asked a group of senior Ridgway High School students a candid question on Friday afternoon.
“How many people in this room believe that politics don’t matter or politics are whack?” asked Hernandez, president of the Sonoma County Board of Education.
About half of the students in the Santa Rosa classroom raised their hand.
Hernandez, a 32-year-old Guerneville native who graduated from El Molino High in 2004, said he felt the same way when he was their age. It wasn’t until he was about 25 that he changed his mind. After attending several meetings between local officials and Latino leaders, Hernandez became convinced that political involvement was critical to fixing a number of problems facing the Latino community.
“I’m here today because when I realized that your voice does matter, I wanted to see people like people in this room involved in local politics,” Hernandez said.
Friday’s classroom visit was just one piece of a larger effort across the North Bay to increase Latino turnout in the upcoming election.
For decades, Latinos have participated in U.S. elections at a lower rate than other racial and ethnic groups. While the number of Latinos registered to vote has increased in Sonoma County the past four years, they still register to vote at a lower rate than Latinos statewide, according to figures provided by GrassrootsLab, a California public affairs and political consulting firm.
Compared to whites, Latino residents in Sonoma County tend to have lower levels of education, income and homeownership — all strong indicators of who will vote, said Mike Madrid, a principal at the firm.
Still, anger and frustration over President Donald Trump’s rhetoric and policy on immigration may encourage some California and Sonoma County Latinos to become more politically involved, he said.
“What we found is that the Latino community has really never been motivated by an aspirational message,” Madrid said. “The community has always responded to negative attacks — anti-immigration sentiment, building the wall, that kind of thing.”
About 12.5 percent of the county’s 269,000 registered voters this year are Latino, an increase from 8 percent in January 2016, data provided by the firm shows.
Low voter turnout
Of the 70,000 people who registered to vote in Sonoma County for the first time since the 2016 presidential election, 13.5 percent are Latino — a disproportionately low number, compared to their share of the county’s overall population. The group accounted for just over a fourth of the county’s 504,000 residents last year, according to census data.
Statewide, Latinos account for 34 percent of California’s adult population — the state’s largest racial and ethnic group — but represent only 21 percent of those most likely to vote, the Public Policy Institute of California said in an August report. Their share of the electorate during the June primary in California was 16.8 percent, up from about 12 percent from the primary four years ago, Madrid said.
Nationally, the number of eligible Latino voters has made a steady climb upward since the 1980s, reaching an estimated 29.1 million in 2018, up from 7.5 million in 1986, a Pew Research Center analysis published Monday shows. Just over a quarter of them, or 7.7 million, live in California.