By Mia Maldonado, Idaho Capital Sun / September 15, 2022

Editor’s note: This story is part of a project called Democracy Day, in which newsrooms across the country are shining a light on threats to democracy. Para leer esta historia en español, haga clic aquí.

Raquel Reyes started her new position with the Idaho Democratic Party in the fall of 2021 – the first Hispanic outreach organizer for the party.

The new position is focused on educating the Idaho Latino community on the Democratic platform and building trust within the community. She has reached out to eligible Latino voters who are unfamiliar with the voting process, many of whom are new U.S. citizens. 

Reyes said that people who have become new citizens in Idaho want to vote, but many have not mastered the English language. 

According to data from the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs, about one-fourth of Idaho Latinos speak English less than “very well.”

While language is one barrier that many Latinos face upon Election Day, Reyes said that a lack of trust also exists between Latinos and people in office. 

“The Idaho Democratic Party recognizes that Latinos have been underrepresented for many years, and they recognize the importance of bringing a Spanish-speaking individual to come in to build those relationships and get the Latino vote,” she said. 

In her role, Reyes has provided bilingual outreach to Latinos. In a partnership with local organizations including PODER of Idaho, Reyes has organized civic engagement and community events including Halloween events and a Latinx Pride event.

“If Latinos get to the polls this Nov. 8 and vote, they would bring the change that Idaho needs,” Reyes said. 

Democrats are not alone in their efforts to reach out to the Latino population. 

Some Republican candidates, such as Republican lieutenant governor primary election candidate Priscilla Giddings, have reached out to the Latino community during the primary campaign season. In April, Giddings, who lost her primary election bid to House Speaker Scott Bedke, appeared on radio station VOZ Latina in Burley. 

“The Idaho Republican Party is a big tent that welcomes all voters, including Latinos, to join our ranks,” wrote Jacob Miller, the director of communications for the Idaho Republican Party. “Latino voters are encouraged to not just register and vote as Republicans, but to take an active role in our party. For many Latinos in Idaho, affiliating as a Republican is a clear and easy choice due to the fact that the Republican Platform more closely aligns with their values, namely, faith, family, and freedom.”

The Idaho GOP is making investments into Latino outreach in terms of registration, voter contact and messaging, he said. 

“This is nothing new as evidenced by the fact that the first Latinos ever elected to Congress or statewide office in Idaho were Republicans,” Miller said in the statement. “Two of our last three State Party Chairs were also Latino. Clearly, the Idaho Republican Party is the natural home for Latino voters and we’re excited to build on our record of success into the future.”

Where do Latinos fit in with Idaho voter turnout?

There were 1 million Idahoans registered in the May 2022 primary election, but only 328,000 cast a ballot, according to the official election results from the Idaho Secretary of State’s Office. 

The Idaho Secretary of State’s Office does not collect demographics, such as race or ethnicity, upon voter registration. 

“We try not to track data that is superfluous to the voting process,” said Chad Houck, deputy secretary of state. “We do not see race as needing to be there upon registration.”

However, the U.S. census provides data on Latinos in Idaho. Latinos are Idaho’s largest minority group, making up about 13% of the state’s population. Roughly 253,000 Latinos live in Idaho as of 2021, according to the U.S. census

According to data from the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs and the 2018 U.S. census, 72% of Latinos in Idaho are U.S. citizens and 18 years or older, making up about 101,000 eligible voters in the state. 

While almost half of the Latinos in Idaho are eligible to vote, Voto Latino, a national grassroots organization, estimates that only a quarter of eligible Latinos voted in the 2020 primary election.

Why is Latino voter turnout so low in Idaho? 

Antonio Hernandez, a former bilingual civic engagement coordinator at Conservation Voters for Idaho, said getting Latinos to vote is difficult because they have to navigate an unfamiliar and sometimes unwelcoming space. He compares getting Latinos to the polls to the college application process that many first-generation students experience. 

“Like being a first-generation college student, many Latinos don’t have someone in their family that will guide them throughout the process,” he said. “It’s the same thing with voting if no one in their family has ever voted before.”

Generational knowledge is an essential part of getting people to vote, Hernandez said. 

“It’s hard for me to celebrate seeing only 32.5 % voter turnout in the last election,” he said. “There are consequences for not including more voters in our democracy, and the state is seeing that now.” 

Margie Gonzalez, the executive director of the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs, said the problem is not just getting Latinos to register, but rather it is getting them to the polls.

“We don’t make enough effort to have bilingual or bicultural volunteers and workers at these polls,” she said. “We need to see people that look like us.”

With the upcoming election in November, Canyon County announced it is hiring poll workers. Canyon County is home to the most Latinos in the state with about 62,500 in the county, according to the U.S. census. 

Political outreach in Idaho’s top Latino districts

In Canyon County, a race between two lifelong Caldwell residents is taking place between  Caldwell school district chairwoman Marisela Pesina and City Councilmember Chris Allgood. They are running for election to the Idaho House of Representatives to represent District 11, seat B. 

Allgood, a Republican, is a lifelong Caldwell resident. Before running for office, he worked for the Caldwell Police Department for 30 years. In 2015, Allgood retired from his position as the police chief of Caldwell. He has been a City Council member for seven years, and he owns a private investigations business. 

“I’m running to keep Idaho conservative values in place,” he said in a phone interview. “I grew up here, so I have tons of Hispanic friends. My wife is Hispanic, and my kids are Hispanic.”

Allgood said he has not felt the need to have Latino-specific outreach. 

“Everybody is just the same,” he said. “I haven’t really felt the need to campaign towards a particular demographic. But, I certainly feel like the Hispanic vote is a powerful one based on how many Hispanic and Latino people we have in Canyon County.” 

His opponent, Marisela Pesina, has also lived in Caldwell her entire life. 

Pesina grew up at the Caldwell Housing Authority as the daughter of migrant farmworkers. She has served on the Board of Directors of the Caldwell Housing Authority and the St. Luke’s West Treasure Valley Community Board. She is in her third year as the chairwoman for Caldwell School District’s board of trustees. She works as a full-time bilingual escrow officer at a title company. 

Running as a Democrat, Pesina said she is hopeful to increase Latino representation in the Idaho House. Throughout her campaign, she has provided bilingual outreach.  Marisela Pesina is the Democratic candidate running for the Idaho House of Representatives to represent District 11, seat B. (Courtesy of Marisela Pesina)

“As Latinos, we have been told our voice doesn’t matter, and we’ve been forgotten,” she said in a phone interview. “When I talk to many unregistered Latino voters, I tell them, ‘You became a citizen to help your family. One of the benefits you get as a citizen is to vote, so throwing it away is giving away what a lot of people wish they had.’” 

Pesina said many Latinos are hesitant to vote because they are unfamiliar with the candidates. She said that to get more Latinos to the polls, she recommends having a voter guide with candidate information in Spanish. 

More language accessibility during political campaigns

Like Pesina, Estefanía Mondragon, the executive director of PODER of Idaho, said she advocates for more language accessibility in the voting process. 

Only five counties in Idaho offer non-English election materials. Clark County is the only county in Idaho that is required to offer Spanish language assistance, while Clearwater, Idaho, Lewis and Nez Perce counties must provide election materials in the Native Nez Perce language. 

“Language access is governance,” Mondragon said. “If you want to be a government of all your people and for all of the people who pay taxes, include basic language accessibility.”

Mondragon created PODER of Idaho to mobilize the immigrant community through civic engagement campaigns, farmworker research and educational opportunities. So far, the grassroots organization has created an expansive Latino network in Idaho, even playing an important role in collecting signatures for the Reclaim Idaho ballot initiative

She said that while there is a lack of understanding how the political process works among Latinos, she saw many Latinos wanting to get involved as her team collected signatures for Reclaim Idaho. 

“People in the Latino community have never been asked to get involved,” she said. “No one has ever reached out to them and said, ‘I want your signature for this because your voice matters in governance.’” 

Mondragon said that no matter a person’s documentation status, there are still ways for people to get involved in the political process.

“For those that are not eligible to vote, whether they’re undocumented, legal permanent residents or their TPS holders, they can still make their voices heard and be involved in governance,” Mondragon said. “Not by voting, but by lobbying, protesting or writing a letter. There’s so many things that people can do that are not just voting.”

Editor’s note: Mia Maldonado, the author of this report, completed this story before her summer internship ended with the Idaho Capital Sun. She now reports on breaking news for the Idaho Statesman.

FEATURED IMAGE:  Voters cast their ballots at Fairmont Junior High during the Idaho Primary on May 17, 2022. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)

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