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Battleground Dispatches: Finding a Vote for the First Time in Arizona

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Daniel Valenzuela and Antonio Valdovinos (right) canvass in Maryvale, an hispanic neighborhood in western Phoenix.

PHOENIX, Ariz. — Antonio Valdovinos lived down the street for 15 years and never met his neighbor.

But this week, the 56-year-old neighbor sought out Valdovinos, a Democratic Party volunteer half his age. The older man, a new American citizen, needed help casting a vote for the first time.

So Valdovinos went to the man’s house with a ballot on Wednesday. “I walked home with the sense I had a voice. He’s giving me a voice,” Valdovinos said.

Valdovinos is Mexican and has been in Arizona as an undocumented immigrant since he was 2 years old. He’s volunteering this election in partisan get-out-the-vote efforts because he believes the political process largely leaves out and under-represents members of his community, like his neighbor.

Latino voters and volunteers across the country have felt similar enthusiasm as Valdovinos, and their growing interest in politics places the Latino community in a position that could sway races from the local level to the presidency.

Only 50 percent of Hispanic eligible voters nationwide voted in 2008, a proportion significantly less than the percent of turnout for white and African American voters. But as immigration issues and candidates — such as Republican Sen. Marco Rubio in Florida and Senate candidate Richard Carmona in Arizona — have gained prominence, Hispanic turnout will grow. The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials predicts turnout in Arizona to rise to 359,000 Latinos this year, an increase of almost 25 percent from 2008.


On a recent September evening, Valdovinos and Phoenix councilman Daniel Valenzuela went door to door along North 55th Drive in Maryvale, a western Phoenix neighborhood with a large low-income Latino population. The two men set out to lobby voters to choose Democratic candidates on their ballots, including Richard Carmona for Senate and President Barack Obama.

Valenzuela won his seat on city council last year by turning out new Latino voters in neighborhoods like Maryvale, and he hoped to replicate the strategy in larger races.

The scene on North 55th Drive painted a diverse landscape of the Latino community — some interested and informed, others uneducated on how to engage with government.

Valdovinos approached a house with the councilman ready to relay Valenzuela’s message in Spanish. As an unseen person in a room nearby played the national anthem on the clarinet, the woman at the front door said she closely followed social security and health care policy.

Across the street, two boys riding bikes couldn’t name the Republican candidate for president. A man washing his car told Valdovinos he didn’t know how to fill out a ballot.

“Vote here” sign in Arizona. Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

Because many Latinos have immigrated or didn’t vote in the past, their learning curve is steep. Cultural traditions, too, keep many disinterested and afraid, said Valdovinos.

“As a Latino, I never had a conversation about politics until 2008 with President Obama,” Valdovinos said. His mother and father began talking with him about politics only recently, too.

When he approaches people, Valdovinos tells his story, of a childhood not knowing of his immigration status, of taking classes at the community college and of pursuing a 2-year work visa enabled under the Obama administration this year. Many people respond when he hits on something in common, he said, or brings up the controversial Arizona Senate Bill 1070, which allows police to detain people in Arizona who don’t have immigration documents on hand.

While about 30 percent of the state’s population is Latino, one-third of those residents can’t vote because they are undocumented immigrants, according to Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy.

Of those who do vote, many sway Democratic. According to an October Pew Research Survey, 61 percent of Latinos believe the Democratic Party has more concern for them, compared with 10 percent feeling the same about the Republican Party.

Hector Rangel, a Mexican-American business-owner and frequent campaign volunteer from Farmington, N.M., feels that fiscal conservatism sits at odds with many Hispanics.

“They believe in living the lives they used to have in Mexico,” he said. “They do believe in big government.”

Still, Rangel’s beliefs as a pro-life Catholic dovetail with many Latinos as well as with the GOP’s social policies.

Paulo Sibaja of the Republican National Committee recognized this in an opinion column in the Orange County Register in 2010. He wrote:

“We are naturally socially conservative and espouse the principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We believe in self-reliance, entrepreneurship, hard work, and ‘querer es poder.'” Translated, that means where there’s a will, there’s a way.

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