Latino voter registration surges amid Trump’s rise

Ubaldo Gutierrez has been a United States citizen since 2004. But he never bothered to register to vote until this month.

Why now, after 12 years? The Reidsville resident doesn’t hesitate in giving his answer.

“We’ve got to get Trump out of there,” he said. “It’s kind of scary for the entire country.”

Gutierrez is part of a recent surge in Latino voter registration in Georgia, one that many attribute to Donald Trump, the Republican Party’s presumptive presidential nominee. Some 16,254 Latinos joined the state’s roll of active voters from October to April, an increase of nearly 20 percent, according to records maintained by the Secretary of State’s Office.

Latino advocates say the presidential race – and the anti-immigrant tone of Trump’s campaign – is a big motivator for many new voters. Increased Hispanic voter registration also has been reported in other states. The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials projects that 13.1 million Latinos will cast ballots nationwide in the November election – up 17 percent from 2012.

“Latinos are listening to the anti-Latino rhetoric and responding to that with increased engagement,” said Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, which registered several dozen people, including Gutierrez, at a soccer tournament in Stone Mountain earlier this month.

Right now, Latinos account for just 2.1 percent of the Georgia’s 4.9 million active voters, but Gonzalez expects the pace of registration to pick up as the November election approaches.

“What we’ve seen is nothing compared to what we’ll see in September and October,” he said.

Democrats say Latino voters will help change Georgia from a Republican stronghold to a competitive battleground – perhaps as soon as November. Republicans say Democrats shouldn’t assume they’ll win the Latino vote, that many Latinos embrace GOP policies.

Whoever’s right could control the future of Georgia politics. The Atlanta Regional Commission expects the 20-county area around the city to add more than a million Hispanic residents by 2040. By then, Hispanics will account for 22 percent of residents in the state’s most populous region, according to the ARC.

Georgia has long been a magnet for Latinos looking for jobs. In 2014, nearly 900,000 Latinos lived in Georgia – about 9 percent of the state’s population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Nearly one in five of them live in Gwinnett County, where Latinos now account for more than 20 percent of the population.

But Latino political power has lagged because many do not vote, either because they are not U.S. citizens or they have chosen not to become active in politics.

But that may be changing as the first wave of immigrants gives way to a second generation born or raised in this country, according to University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock. He said Trump’s candidacy is also fueling Latino political engagement.

Trump gained attention early in his campaign for suggesting that many Mexican immigrants are rapists and criminals. More recently, he claimed an Indiana-born judge was biased against him because of the judge’s Mexican heritage. Trump has also repeatedly called for a temporary ban on Muslim immigrants – a call that has made even some in his own party uncomfortable.

Antonio Molina, the Latino caucus chair for the Georgia Democratic Party, said Trump’s rhetoric has inspired many Hispanic citizens to pay attention to U.S. politics. Trump’s views on immigration are especially troubling, he said.

“It’s no longer just about policy,” Molina said of the country’s ongoing immigration debate. “Now there’s this person vilifying us and targeting our community. It’s energized us.”

Latinos may not be the only energized group. State registration data shows the number of active Asian voters rose 16.2 percent from October to April. By comparison, the number of black voters rose 7.4 percent, while the number of white voters rose 7.3 percent.

According to state voter registration statistics, whites still account for 58 percent of Georgia voters, with blacks at 29.3 percent and Asians at 1.6 percent.

Democrats see the rising minority vote as good news. Studies and polls have shown minorities tend to favor Democrats, and party officials believe Trump’s candidacy will reinforce that tendency.

“Georgia’s going purple a lot sooner, rather than later,” Molina said.

Leo Smith, who leads the Republicans’ minority outreach efforts in Georgia, disagrees. He said many Latinos are more conservative than Democrats believe.

“We believe Latinos better fit with the Republican platform than they do the Democrats’ platform, the liberal platform,” Smith said.

Though he acknowledged the “noise” surrounding Trump makes recruiting minorities to the GOP more challenging, Smith said Democrats are taking Latinos for granted.

“The Republican Party isn’t going to make any assumption about Latino voters,” he said, “except their political interests must be served.”

But Bullock said there is “no doubt” Democrats will benefit from a surge in Latino voters, and Trump is helping their case.

“I don’t think Georgia will be in the Democratic column this fall,” Bullock said. “But it’s not too far away. (Latinos are) going to be disproportionately Democratic voters.”

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