When Gloria Ramirez Arias of Fresno filled out a ballot for the first time in 2012, she included her choice for president and a few other races with names she recognized, but left much of the page blank. In the end, she didn’t even turn it in.
Ramirez Arias, 34, said that won’t happen this election because she now understands why her vote matters, especially when it comes to local issues. That’s thanks, in part, to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.
“I think the whole Trump effect is making awareness of other things either that I was not exposed to, or maybe that I was exposed to at one point but I didn’t think affected me,” she said. “I’m educating myself and doing everything I can for this election.”
With just a couple of weeks before the Nov. 8 balloting, it’s clear that the contentious presidential race has spurred members of underrepresented groups to register to vote. Statewide, significantly more Latinos, Asian Americans and young people – groups with historically low turnout rates – voted in the June primary than in 2012.
Experts say the representation gap hasn’t narrowed enough to fully mitigate the disparity between older white voters and, essentially, everyone else. But in a place like the central San Joaquin Valley, where the majority of residents are people of color, increased turnout among those groups could sway some local races.
The question is, will the increased interest in the presidential race trickle down to local politics?
Choosing local candidates
Though immigration isn’t the top issue of concern for most Latinos, many use a candidate’s stance on immigration as a way to distinguish between “the good guys and the bad guys,” said Pablo Rodriguez, executive director of Communities for a New California Education Fund. The statewide nonprofit, which has an office in Fresno, educates new voters on policy issues such as health, immigration and environmental justice that are relevant to rural communities.
In a weekly poll by the political research company Latino Decisions, more than 75 percent of 1,250 registered Latino voters nationwide, who have been interviewed since September, said that what the candidates say about immigration is very or extremely important to their vote.
75 percent of Latino registered voters who responded to a Latino Decisions poll say the candidates’ statements on immigration are very or extremely important to their vote.
Rodriguez said the Republican presidential candidate’s anti-immigrant rhetoric has Latino voters asking of local candidates: “Do you support Donald Trump?” He said members of other groups that have become targets of Trump, including Muslims and women, are asking it now, too.
“In a state where people will say, ‘Well, it doesn’t matter – all 55 electoral votes are going to the Democrat anyway,’ that is inaccurate,” he said. “Because there’s going to be down-ballot issues, city and county offices where people should care because people are going to ask that question.”
That should put candidates who try to at once condemn and endorse Trump on notice, Rodriguez said. He used incumbent Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, as an example. Denham called Trump’s behavior “disturbing, inappropriate and outlandish” but still supports his party’s nominee.
Another example is the race for the next Fresno mayor. In an interview Wednesday with “ABC30 Action News,” candidate Henry Perea said he plans to vote for Clinton. Perea’s opponent Lee Brand said he might end up not voting for any candidate. That’s a departure from September, when Perea would not say who he was voting for, and Brand said he would prefer a different Republican but would “probably pick Trump.”
“You can’t have it both ways,” Rodriguez said. “The reason that matters at local elections is you start to question whether someone like Lee Brand has (Trump’s) values and convictions. Where do they stand?”
Ramirez Arias isn’t sure whether she will vote for Democrat Hillary Clinton or Green Party candidate Jill Stein, but she knows she wants to make sure her vote keeps Trump out of the White House. She plans to look into other candidates’ support of Trump before she casts a ballot.
She has volunteered with the statewide Latino voter engagement nonprofit Mi Familia Vota for nearly three years, at first helping interpret for people filing naturalization applications. She was asked to help with voter registration this year, which exposed her to rural Valley communities where residents live with polluted air and contaminated water.
“People think California is this beautiful place where people just walk on the beach in sandals all day, and that’s not true,” she said. “People don’t know they do have a voice. If we can start changing how the laws affect the environment, that’s huge for me.”
Voter participation spike
Mindy Romero, director of the California Civic Engagement Project at UC Davis whose work focuses on the intersection of political behavior and race and ethnicity, said there has been a spike in the total number of registered voters.
“We know this is going to be just a gangbuster year for voter registration,” she said. “But when it comes to registration of underrepresented groups, the story is always one of disparity. That story hasn’t changed.”
Latino registered-voter turnout increased statewide in June to 39 percent, up by 22 percentage points from the 2012 presidential primary. Asian American voter turnout was 38 percent in June, up by 14 percentage points from 2012. In Fresno County, where the Latino population is significantly higher than the statewide average, those increases were much more muted.
Romero does think the increase in voter registration will translate to increased turnout among underrepresented groups. As long as voters don’t get “ballot fatigue,” she said, they will hopefully vote for president – and everything else.
“The most logical explanation is people are mobilized and galvanized by this election,” she said. “They’re hearing things on the news that make them upset and want to participate.”
Latinos could swing certain races and ballot measures. For example, Romero said Latinos poll more negatively on marijuana legalization, which could affect the outcome of Proposition 64 on the California ballot. But given that the rate of Latino voters statewide still doesn’t match that of white voters, the moderate increase in voter registration might not be enough to affect change.
That effect is different on the local level, Romero said. More Latino voters could change the outcome of races where one of the candidates is Latino, such as the Fresno mayoral race, or the 21st Congressional District race between Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, and Democrat Emilio Huerta, the son of United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta.
“If the Latino vote is really big in Fresno, a few percentage points might make a difference,” she said.
Not going to vote
The nonprofit Faith in Community has been contacting low-propensity registered voters and providing nonpartisan information about local elections, including a guide with responses from Brand and Perea about Fresno issues such as unsafe housing and job growth.
FIC organizer Thomas Weiler said he spoke to one woman in Spanish who said there was zero chance she would vote because she hates the options for president. The woman was delighted to learn she could support schools and other issues of local impact. She changed her likelihood of voting to a 10, with the exception of casting a vote for president.
Not everyone is that excited. Canvassers with the nonprofit Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries, which has partnered with Faith in Community, set out Monday with a daunting task: finding Hmong people who are willing to talk about politics.
Jaclyn Xiong, 20, said the vast majority of people whose doors she has knocked on decline to say whether they will vote. There are barriers of language – ballots don’t come in Hmong – as well as education and culture. Hmong, an ethnic minority, didn’t vote in Laos before coming to America as refugees starting in the 1970s. Many don’t realize they can vote by mail. Others think their vote doesn’t matter.
Last week, Xiong and her canvassing partner Paying Her walked up to two young Hmong men standing outside their house. The men, who declined to share their names, said they won’t vote. One said he doesn’t like either presidential candidate. The other said it doesn’t matter because the election is rigged, anyway.
“What about the local issues?” Xiong said.
She said she hears people in her community complain often about politics but do nothing about it, especially in local elections where they can have the most impact.
I never really cared about politics, but after having a child and seeing how it would affect not only my future but his future as well, it made me want to get involved.
Jaclyn Xiong, 20
“Youth have the mindset that nothing is going to happen to us, that we are invincible,” she said. “I never really cared about politics, but after having a child and seeing how it would affect not only my future but his future as well, it made me want to get involved.”
Despite her job as a canvasser, Xiong said it takes a formative experience like hers to arrive at that realization. “You can’t really make them vote or change their mind.”