Voto Latino co-founder on 2020's "surge of young voters" and what it means for Texas and Arizona

Salon talks to Maria Teresa Kumar about how the Latinx community went from ignored to potential election deciders

By Dean Obeidallah
October 28, 2020 4:00PM (UTC)
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Sandra Amado Gomez and her daughter Aylen Agostina Gomez registers a woman to vote during halftime at the championship game of soccer on Sunday, Sept. 20, 2020 in Raleigh, NC. North Carolina is gearing up to be a swing state in the 2020 election and Latino voters will play a big part in the outcome. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

When Maria Teresa Kumar co-founded Voto Latino in 2004, along with actress and activist Rosario Dawson, national politicians all but ignored the Latino community when it came to national elections. Flash forward to 2020 and the Latino community has grown to become the largest non-white voting bloc in America and are poised to play a pivotal role in potentially flipping traditionally red states like Arizona and Texas in favor of Joe Biden.

I spoke to Kumar, who is also an MSNBC political contributor, on "Salon Talks" about the 2020 election and her work organizing the Latinx community and registering voters. While the community, of which a record 32 million are eligible to vote in 2020, is not monolithic, Kumar explained that Donald Trump has made it more active and united in the common goal of defeating him. This is not so much because of Trump's demonization of Hispanic immigrants — after all, that was one of the cornerstones of his 2016 campaign, and he still received 28 percent of the Latinx vote per exit polls. Kumar explained that it's more a result of Trump's failed handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which has disproportionality affected the Latinx community both in terms of health impact and economic pain. 

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She also flagged that there are great concerns that Trump, if he wins in 2020, would not replace the Affordable Care Act if the United States Supreme Court strikes the law down in the case currently pending before it, leaving millions in the Latinx community without health insurance and ending coverage of pre-existing medical conditions for millions more.

Kumar is very optimistic at the prospects of her community increasing their political influence in the years to come, especially given the large increase in activism among younger Latinx Americans. But the future may actually be now, with both North Carolina and Wisconsin tipping blue, given the increased activism by Latinos in those states. For more of my "Salon Talks" conversation with Kumar about the blueprint to transform a once-ignored minority group into a political powerhouse, watch the video below or read the transcript that follows.

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This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

People are talking about the Latinx vote so much this year. It's been increasing over the last few years, but when you started Voto Latino in 2004, you have said that there weren't people pursuing your community, at least not on a national level. Share with people a little bit about where your community was in terms of activism and how much politicians were actually seeking and courting your community's support.

When we started Voto Latino, 30,000 Latino youth were turning 18 every single month. You and I have been talking for about a minute, and two Latinos have turned 18 already. Every 30 seconds, a Latino comes of voting age since when we started. What was happening that was so different back then —when they would talk about the Latino community, and sadly, this still happens, people's immediate knee-jerk reaction is to talk to us in Spanish. The knee-jerk reaction is to talk to us in nontraditional formats. I would say, "I'm the beginning of a wave of Latinos that were raised in this country who are English-dominant, who speak it proudly. Some of us may speak Spanish, but most of us speak English, consume our information in English."

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When we started, people were saying that we were wasting our time, saying that Latinos didn't speak English, that young Latinos did not care, and that the internet was not going to be a big deal. I am a testament that none of that is true, partially because here's the thing: The majority of Latino youth, and the reason that we started targeting them is, they were navigating or are navigating the country for their families long before they turn 18 years old, simply because they speak English. We recognized that and we harnessed it, and said, "You guys are really natural-born leaders because you are put in difficult situations when you're nine, ten years old." When people were telling us that what we were doing was basically a fool's errand, it was clear that even folks among the community leaders were out of touch with the tsunami of people behind me. Quite frankly, I grew up in California, and California is the bellwether of where the rest of the country is going.

I've been thinking a lot about what this moment is. People are talking about Texas a lot and I want to write more about this. I've realized that the states that have flipped in the last four election cycles: Virginia, Colorado, Nevada, Arizona, and possibly Texas and North Carolina, they have had basically a perfect storm. They've had an aging in of the Latino youth population. You have had really bad leaders being jerks, for lack of a better word. I'm thinking of Sharron Angle, Jan Brewer, Sheriff Arpaio, Governor Abbott.

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Then in between these young people coming of age and you have these really bad leaders, you also have late 20-somethings, early 30-somethings, running for office and winning in the Latino community. Voto Latino, to that perfect trifecta of people hungering for leadership because people are treating their families so badly, young Latinos becoming courageous enough to actually want to participate by running for office, Voto Latino comes in and basically helps all these masses to register to vote.

Speaking of bad leaders: Jan Brewer. I remember her with this famous — infamous — bill in Arizona, and others. There was a time when people like Donald Trump or Abbott or any of them on the right could say things, and it was only red meat for their base. For minorities and others, we would either roll our eyes or not have the power to change it. What I think the older white generation of politicians, like Trump especially, doesn't get, it's no longer red meat just for your base. It's red meat for us. It animates us more, and now we know how to win elections. We understand the path. I think that has changed fundamentally. We listen to what they say and it actually matters to us. They never thought of that before.

I also think that you see Latinos and people of color in different positions of power that did not exist. Had a Donald Trump ascended into office in 2010, our community simply would not have been ready. What I mean by that is that we wouldn't have had the voting-age population that we need, but then we also wouldn't have leadership helping make decisions for investment, for turnout, and I mean that across the board for a lot of these populations. As a country we would not have been ready. In the last 10 years, you have this really beautiful fabric of America that has aged in and looks more like the rest of the population. There'll be 12 million more young voters this year than Baby Boomers for the very first time. Two-thirds of them are kids of color. That's huge.

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That is. It's remarkable. When you think about it, you started out by saying in 2004, your community was not being pursued. Now [in] 2020: 32 million Latinx projected to vote, 13.3 percent of all eligible voters, meaning they're the largest non-white voting bloc. I know your community is not monolithic by any stretch.

Yeah, but Trump is making us more monolithic, quite frankly. I know it doesn't sound like that's true, but I can tell you that. My best example is Texas. You always have more conservative Latinos in Texas. As of last year, there was a September 2019 poll that was conducted by Univision. They asked Latinos what were the four things that were sending them out to the polls. It was healthcare, immigration, the environment and gun control in Texas. It's because it's a perfect storm of individuals treating whole swaths of the community badly.

This is going to get me into trouble. I would say that there's more diversity in conversations right now happening in Florida than you see in the rest of the Latino community in America because the moment you walk out of your door in Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, it does not matter if you're third-, fourth-, fifth-generation Latino, or first-generation or recently arrived. The way the president has created his antics is that you feel an incredible sense of anxiety being Brown in America, for the most part, because this guy has basically put a target on your family's back. I mean, that is what he has done. That is not the case in Florida, and we can delve that deeper for another show.

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In 2016, when I look back at the voter turnout: white voters 65 percent, Black 60 percent, Latino 48 percent. From what you're seeing on the ground, do you expect to see a bigger turnout this year?

Well, this is the challenge with the numbers. That number talks about the whole pool of eligible voters, but it doesn't talk about the people that are registered to vote. The biggest challenge in the Latino community is the voter registration gap. Literally, half of us are registered. There's 32 million of us. Half of us are registered, half of us are unregistered. That turnout number, 49 percent, is based on the totality.

Why don't they?

This is where Voto Latino comes in. Of the 15 million people that are unregistered, a good 10 million of them are under the age of 33. Of that 10 million under 33, four million of them have turned 18 since the last election. Part of it is that if you were to ask me what I would advocate for upon the change of government, I'm part of this universal voting task force, part of Harvard and the Brennan Center. We have so many young people, not just Latinos, but so many young people coming of age so quickly. Like I mentioned, we have 12 million more young people that have come of age since the last election total. Our system of how to register voters is antiquated and does not keep up with demand or supply, so to speak.

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What California has done is a great example of automatic voter registration, that once you get your license at 16 years old, you're automatically registered. That's a good government function. That's what we should be doing [everywhere]. My job should be basically to persuade you to vote in your interests, for the environment or for immigration reform. I should not be conducting, as an organization, a government function. That's just absurd.

I agree. You know, states like New Jersey recently created a system where you are automatically registered to vote if you have any interaction with the state. We should make it easier for everyone to vote, not harder. That's not what a democracy is, unless of course you're a shrinking demographic and you don't want everyone to vote, because you know when everyone votes, your party loses.

This is where it sounds really counterintuitive. The people who vote have a tendency of being the people who are very passionate about one candidate from either side of the parties. Studies have actually demonstrated that if you have automatic universal voting, if you make it mandatory, the temperature of politics actually goes down and you actually get more policy involved, because all of a sudden the people that are in the middle are participating.

Let's talk about the issues of concern this year in the Latino community. We've talked before about the impact of COVID being disproportionate on people of color, Black and Latino. Can you share the disproportionate impact this virus has had?

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I think finally within the Latino community, it was finally said out loud what we always knew, that we are the essential workforce of this country. We always knew it. People winked at it. The numbers and the fact that the country is running is because of the incredible work of the Latino community, immigrant communities and Black communities. That is not me saying it, that's the data proving it. The sadness of it, though, is that we are also disproportionately impacted by the cases of COVID. The Latino community leads in the mortality rate and in the infectious rate. That means that we're not talking about our elderly, we're talking about moms and dads and we're talking about children. We're talking about orphans and we're talking about mothers who are motherless and we're talking about widows, and we don't have those conversations, but coming out of COVID it's going to be a conversation that we really need to figure out.

We are walking into a new era of America, where 7.7 million fellow Americans are going to be diagnosed already with preexisting conditions because of COVID. We are going to need healthcare in order for us to just, as a country, continue being an economic engine for all of us. I mean, that is just it.

I'll give you an example. In San Francisco, the Latino community represents 30 percent of the San Francisco population makeup. There was a period when it was spiking that 80 percent of those admitted to San Francisco General Hospital were Latino. We know that we're talking about a young population, because while the average age of Whites is 53, the average age of Latinos is 27 years old. This is the time when the majority of people in their twenties and thirties, that's when they're starting to start their careers, but it's also their optimum productivity years. We're hampering a whole generation of Americans who happen to be Latino from that, not just for themselves, for their community, but for the country.

Then you hear Donald Trump and the closing message of his campaign is ignore COVID, it's gone, we've turned the corner, and don't listen to "idiots" like Dr. Fauci. He is literally saying stuff like that. Is that because his base is primarily white, and Brown and Black people who are really suffering from COVID both health-wise and financially simply don't matter to him?

If you track the moment that he stopped doing daily White House briefings, it almost perfectly correlates to when we started learning about who the deaths were in this country and who was contracting it. I think it was within hours. Almost perfectly, right? It also shows this weird level of inability to feel any empathy for people who may have lost and who have not had the choice to go through this. We, you and I, we're so privileged that we can have this conversation and we can shelter in place, but millions of Americans don't have that privilege.

When we talk about how lopsided our systems are, it is just looking at the populations who don't have a choice, but who have to leave their homes to put food on their table for their children. They live in multigenerational households, so they have to be extra careful that they don't infect their grandmother when they come back, for example. When we have a president that says that people who wear a mask contract COVID anyway, that's an absolute lie, but it also shows how disconnected he is from the American reality of millions of Americans, regardless of race, but who are working hard every day for their families just simply to survive.

When you look at the latest unemployment numbers we have as a nation, we've gone to 7.9 percent, but the Hispanic unemployment rate is 10.3 percent, just down from 10.5 percent the month before. We're clearly stuck at a number where there's job loss disproportionately impacting the Latino community and the Black community. These jobs are not coming back because many of these businesses are gone. Over 100,000 small businesses are gone. What do you think? What are you hearing from people about what they want in the federal government in terms of job creation and a safety net for your community?

Real opportunity and re-imagination, frankly. If we just take a pause and imagine, the majority of individuals who live in Nevada, who rely on the tourism because of the gaming industry, those jobs, it's going to take them a minute, right? United Airlines this week said that the airline industry is not going to recuperate until 2024. We're talking about three and a half years from now. While many people say this is not the place of government, this is precisely the place of government.

Our world right now is so parallel to a hundred years ago when we were coming out of the Great Depression and all these other things, changing technologies, everything. We are so parallel. What we need to do is take clues of what did we do in our past. In our past, we had a clear vision of rebuilding America under the New Deal. We had a clear vision that we were going to level up and create a middle class. We decided that we were going to invest in the GI Bill on education, that we were going to provide public education, that we were going to provide people with home lines of equity. That had never happened before, but it was a decision by the government and by a population that said, yes, it's a good thing to make sure that we have a social safety net.

Now what we have to do is reimagine it for population that looks wholly different than the last population, but that is just as hungry for being able to live in a thriving middle class. It's our job to make sure that we are imagining and being audacious. You know, my favorite line I always like to share is there's a guy that one day rolled out of bed and said, "Hey, let's go to the moon," and everybody's like, "OK," and we did it with less technology than our cell phone. When's the last time we thought that audaciously as a country? We need to.

In 2016, 66 percent of Latinx voters voted for Hillary Clinton. You're out there, you're registering voters, you are on the ground talking to people around the country from your community. What do you expect to see in terms of Donald Trump's support within your community, and Joe Biden's?

It's going to be very much state by state, believe it or not. What I mean by that, I think Florida is still a lot of work to be done. In Florida, what Trump did well was that he never stopped talking to Floridian voters since the 2016 election, and he spread a lot of misinformation. It has worked, but we see people coming in. We see Floridians, especially Latino women in Florida in general, coming in and voting for Biden.

In Texas, we see a surge of young voters that are led by young Latinas, but that are voting for Biden and Harris. That was because Beto O'Rourke and organizations on the ground for the very first time made Texas the lowest-propensity voting state to 41st, in a midterm election. That's exciting. Texas is leading the nation in early voting. That is phenomenal for a state that typically never votes. I think that I would encourage us to look at what's happening in Texas, what's happening in Arizona, as bellwethers of the rest of the country for the Latino vote in this election.

Arizona looks very winnable. As you know, in 2018, a Democrat won a Senate seat there. Right now Biden is polling way ahead of where Hillary was. Polls don't mean everything, but when I talk to people like Congressman Ruben Gallego he talks about how more active and organized the community is now than it was before. Is that something you're seeing as well? Because that usually yields a real result, a tangible one.

I have to say if there is a model for the Democrats to learn on how to engage young voters, how to build a bench of young talent and how to not abandon them in between elections, it is Arizona. Arizona in 2010, Voto Latino — but tons of organizations too — got to work because of Sheriff Arpaio. The leadership coming out of Arizona is not only inspiring, but whip-smart. Their tactics are smart. It is awesome to see. I have to give kudos.

If Trump were to win, how do you think it impacts your community? What would be the priorities going forward under a second term of Trump?

My heart was broken in 2016 when he won, because I know that there was a whole slew of Americans who made a bet on him and said, "Well, my life is bad, but my life won't change really radically if I vote or not." For Latinos, for Muslim Americans, for Brown people, for Black people, for women, that was not the case. Our lives fundamentally changed the day after the election. It was not only through rhetoric, but policy. If there are folks out there that feel that they're going to flip that coin again or sit it out, that tells me that you have incredible privilege, and you have incredible privilege where you do not have that empathetic stem of what it would be like to be a Brown child in America growing up under this president.

I think our charge right now is if, at minimum, you believe that there is climate change and you see California on fire — California is the bellwether of so many things, including climate change. We right now have a president that does not believe at all, at all, that climate change is real, despite what the scientists say, despite what the national security intelligence agencies say, despite what NASA says. I mean, he is one against the world on this, and we need to make sure that we can get our country back on track on a global scale.

What would you do in terms of activism if somehow Trump wins the election? How do we not lose energy and enthusiasm? So many people have been emotionally invested in defeating Donald Trump.

No, I think that our institutions are real. If you were to ask me how do we survive another four years, the biggest activism we can do, basically, Dean, is what you do. That is informing the public and giving them honest feedback and assessment of what is happening, so that they do not lose hope, but that they're clear-eyed at what's happening in their government. I don't find everything short of that. Unless we get the Senate in there and the Senate and Congress can pass legislation that is demonstrable change, it is going to be literally our judicial system and our press that will be able to take those.

If Joe Biden wins, the sun is shining and we can all go out and play again and dream and sleep better, and I stop aging as quickly as I'm aging ... I joke. Seriously, if Biden wins, what does the Latino community want from the Biden administration?

We have receipts. Before Voto Latino endorsed Joe Biden, we asked him what his policy positions were, on issues from immigration to the environment to police reform to education. It was a two-page document and he came back with 22 pages, and we have them. Those 22 pages, we now will say, "You voted, and this is what we expect." What excites me about Joe Biden is that I've had the opportunity to meet him and work with him on a few issues when he was vice president for Obama, and he's a curious learner. He is curious about people, but also about finding solutions, and he likes to learn. How refreshing is that?


Dean Obeidallah

Dean Obeidallah hosts the daily national SiriusXM radio program, "The Dean Obeidallah Show" on the network's progressive political channel. He is also a columnist for The Daily Beast and contributor to CNN.com Opinion. He co-directed the comedy documentary "The Muslims Are Coming!" and is co-creator of the annual New York Arab American Comedy Festival. Follow him on Twitter @DeanObeidallah and Facebook @DeanofRadio

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