Elections

‘My voice will make a change.’ Valley voters of color aim to boost election participation

Esmeralda Gomez sat tucked in a back room at the Californians for Justice office in Fresno on Monday, where she and three other young adults were on smart phones, making calls to voters her age.

Colorful posters with goals of the number of young voters to contact decorated one side of the room’s wall, amid the chorus of callers talking to voters.

“Will you be turning in your ballot by November 6?” Gomez, 18, asked a person on the other end of the line in Spanish.

She also asked the voter to check out Proposition 10 on affordable housing. “It’s very important for the community,” Gomez said.

Californians for Justice is one of 25 alliances across the state that’s partnered with Power California to mobilize over 100,000 young voters of color statewide, and some 13,000 in the Central Valley, ahead of the polls next month.

Power California is using young Valley adults from communities of color to call others from similar backgrounds, hoping to convey the power to bring change at the ballot box — particularly if they’re not content with the status quo.

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The group has been busy this election season, calling and texting young Latinos, Southeast Asians, African Americans and Muslims, among other groups. In the Central Valley, two-thirds of people under the age of 25 are Latino and over 50 percent of them are children of immigrants, said Luis Sanchez, executive director for Power California.

From Stockton to Bakersfield, Power California has registered and pre-registered 10,000 young people of color as new voters this year, said Sanchez.

The nonpartisan organization also reached out to thousands more — already registered to vote — to ignite an interest in them casting their ballots for the Nov. 6 election.

Immigration, affordable housing and the environment are the top issues for young people of color, Sanchez said. Power California equips the youth with information, but it doesn’t tell them how to vote.

Sanchez said some of the people Power California is contacting are the first in their family to vote.

“If a young person believes they have a say ... then they start getting involved,” Sanchez said. “You wouldn’t allow someone to dress you, why would you allow them to vote for you?”

Gomez is an example of a first time voter in her family for the upcoming election. “It feels good,” she said. “I feel like the more information I was given, the more I wanted to do it. I feel like my voice will make a change.”

In terms of the Valley, Lisa Bryant, political science assistant professor at Fresno State, said young Hmong are an example of a group that’s “very underrepresented” when it come to voting.

But young people overall have historically had a low turnout rate at the polls. Young voters often get neglected by candidates running for office, campaigns and political parties, Sanchez said.

“There is no focus to reach this population,” he said. “The parties don’t spend money on mobilizing them. If you are a young person, under the age of 30, but most particular people under the age of 25, you won’t get a call.”

That’s the reason why his organization exists today. Power California’s goal is to energize young people of color to create a state that’s equitable, inclusive and just for all.

It’s using paid staff and more than 500 volunteers for its current task to mobilize youth head of the polls, Sanchez said. Staff working the phone bank at the Californians for Justice office in Fresno are getting paid between $15 and $19 an hour. It has received funding from the California Endowment for some of its past work.

Forty percent of people between the ages of 18 and 24 are still not registered to vote in California statewide. In the Central Valley, up to a 55 percent of young adults between those ages are not registered to vote. “We still have a major gap.” Sanchez said.

“We are trying to change the trend.”

Issues being hammered at the national level resonate with people, Bryant said, which she believes “will drive more enthusiasm than we would normally see in midterm elections.”

One issue that’s recently cropped up nationally is accusations of voter suppression, in terms of alleged efforts to keep people of color from having their voters count.

There have already been reports of voter suppression for the midterm elections in states like Georgia. Bryant said that’s due to strict state voter registration laws that allow the Secretary of State’s Office to “systematically throw out ballots” of voters the office claims made errors.

Although that wouldn’t be much of an issue for California, voter intimidation could be a problem, but it would be difficult to quantify.

Bryant said California “has pretty inclusive laws” when it comes to voter registration.

“We see more of a voter intimidation,” she said. “I still hear rumors about it happening. Certain people being told that they shouldn’t go vote or that they might lose their job if they go vote. It’s hard to disentangle, but there’s still a fear because rumors are so prevalent. It’s really hard to know to what extent it could keep people from the polls.”

TeAusha Garcia, 22, working at the phone bank in Fresno, said young people of color don’t realize they have the power to change election outcomes and determine who sits in office.

“You have a right to complain if you go out and vote, but if you don’t vote then it doesn’t do you any good to just sit around,” she said.

Bryant said it’s important for people of color to vote in the Central Valley because elected officials are responsible in addressing the needs of those who show up at the polls.

“If you think the government isn’t working for your community... if you don’t show up at the polls, it’s unlikely to change,” she said.

Yesenia Amaro: 559-441-6144, @YeseniaAmaro
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