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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.

Community’s mindset

However, voter turnout among Latinos has not increased as rapidly. While a record-setting 6.8 million Latinos across the U.S. voted in the 2014 midterm elections, only 27 percent of Latinos eligible to vote actually cast a ballot, Pew reported.

By comparison, 46 percent of eligible white voters and 41 percent of blacks participated in the election, Pew reported. Eligible voters are U.S. citizens above the age of 18. Asian voting patterns mirrored Latino patterns over the past two decades, Pew found.

Low turnout is a reflection of a common belief within the Latino community that participating in democracy is not relevant to their daily lives, said Davin Cardenas, co-director of the North Bay Organizing Project. Another factor is that Latino voters, including new citizens and those who recently became old enough to vote, weren’t raised in a culture that promoted political participation, something his organization aims to change.

“We want to build long-term relationships with nontraditional voters so we begin shifting electoral power in the next decade,” Cardenas said.

Mobalizing votes

Part of the work to increase voter engagement among Latinos locally is being coordinated through the Latino Community Foundation, a group comprised of philanthropists and businesses that raises money to help organizations increase civic engagement and the quality of life of Latinos throughout California.

The foundation has distributed about $1.3 million to three local nonprofits — Sonoma Valley’s La Luz Center, the Calistoga and St. Helena-based UpValley Family Centers and Santa Rosa’s North Bay Organizing Project. Just over half of the money, raised after the 2017 wildfires, was earmarked for long-term causes, including mobilizing the Latino vote in the 2018 midterms.

“We can’t just put out fires. We have to build something that we stand for,” said Masha Chernyak, the foundation’s vice president of programs and policy. “At the core of that is civic engagement.”

The funding has allowed the groups to create and implement their own strategies to best reach their communities, including hiring staff to help with voter outreach efforts for this election and the next, as well as paying for nonpartisan canvassing to encourage unlikely voters to get more politically involved, Chernyak said. Seven smaller organizations, including the bilingual radio station KBBF-FM and the nonprofit Corazón Healdsburg, were also selected to split about $175,000 for projects that promote civic engagement.

The rest of the money was used to help organizations provide immediate relief following the Northern California fires, as well as to hire additional workers to strengthen other programs.

The funding enabled the North Bay Organizing Project to hire a coordinator and workers who canvass southwest Santa Rosa neighborhoods to increase voter turnout, said Tré Vasquez, a youth organizer with the nonprofit. The group also pays students to do phone banking in which they call local residents previously registered by them to help with any questions they may have about casting their vote.

“We’re not influencing anyone to vote in any direction, but we are encouraging them to be in the game, not part of the sidelines,” Vasquez said.

Increasing engagement

The Voter Participation Center, a Washington, D.C.-based group that works on increasing civic engagement among unmarried women, people of color and millennials, also has turned its attention to Sonoma County and neighboring Marin County. The effort is backed by the Latino leadership group Los Cien, of which Hernandez’s father was a founding member; state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg; and local philanthropists and winery owners Tony Crabb and Barbara Grasseschi.

Between the two counties, the Voter Registration Center has sent out 3,000 pieces of mail to residents who registered to vote for the first time this year, a majority of which the center believes are Latino. The mail includes information about their rights as voters and is intended to encourage new registrants to cast their ballot.

Hernandez and the Wine Country Young Democrats, a political group for Democrat ages 13 to 36, are running a parallel effort to register voters. The push includes making visits to high school classrooms to register and pre-register students to vote, such as Hernandez’s effort on Friday afternoon. Members also attend events and staff tables in front of primarily Latino-serving businesses, including Dutton Avenue Lola’s Market and the nearby Rancho Mendoza Super Mercado.

The effort is being led by 13 student volunteers, mostly young women and girls, who so far have registered over 200 new voters this election season. The experience is one Hernandez hopes can inspire them to seek careers in politics.

“Not only are they super young, they actually represent the people who do not vote or who are chronically undeserved or underrepresented,” Hernandez said. “We have to engage our young people. We need to engage our women and we have to engage our people of color.”

Monday is the last day to register to vote for the midterm election in Sonoma County. Eligible voters can register online at https://registertovote.ca.gov or pick up postage-paid registration forms at the Sonoma County Registrar of Voters Office and other public buildings.

You can reach Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or nashelly.chavez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @nashellytweets.

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