The Latina Experience
Misinformation and lack of access to information can be a barrier to new voters participating in elections.
This is part four of an eight-part series about elections and voting in Kansas.
I cry every time I vote. Every single time.
I do fine while waiting in line. I’m OK when I prove my identity. I‘m even OK as I make my selections. But the moment it’s time to finalize my vote, I can feel the emotion build up. I get a lump in my throat, my nose turns red and my eyes water. This even happens when I’m dropping my vote in a ballot box. I have to wipe tears away before driving off. I know this happens because with every vote I am carrying the experiences and stories of those who came before me and my hopes for those who come after me.
In recent weeks, I’ve been reflecting on my own experience, attitude and beliefs on voting and the election process as I spent time talking to a group of Latina women about their own.
I’m a proud Latina born and raised in Texas. On my mother’s side, I am the third-generation born and raised in the United States. On my father’s side, I am the first-generation.
My father became a naturalized citizen days before I was born. My attitude toward voting was shaped by my mother, whose parents were born with the right to vote. However, only her father voted, because the family could only afford the poll tax for one person. The poll tax in Texas was eventually set aside in 1966, when my mother was 14 years old. Four years later, she would register to vote. From that moment on, my grandmother voted regularly.
My attitude was also shaped by my father, who was involved in political conversations (and some arguments) long before the right to vote was his. I don’t remember a time when I was not taught to respect and appreciate the right to vote. I always knew it carried more weight than the paper it was printed on. I’ve always had a sense that my one vote had the potential to speak for many.
I also never doubted the integrity of the election process. My mother talks about how the first time she voted in a presidential election, she was 20, and her candidate lost. It did not occur to her to question the system or the outcome. She remembers, “As soon as I could vote, I did. (Democrat George) McGovern was my first. He lost, but I knew to keep voting.” I knew many before me had worked hard to ensure a fair voting system for all. I also know that nothing is perfect, but I never doubted the systems, processes and safeguards in place to protect votes.
During my 20s, and despite my parents’ reminders to request an absentee ballot or register wherever I lived at the time, my voting record was probably only slightly more consistent than that of my peers. It’s fair to say I got to a point where I took voting for granted and was naive about just how many Americans don’t vote. I didn’t think seriously about the voting habits of those around me until 2016.
By the 2020 general election, I was actively involved in making sure others voted. It was also when I found myself among a group of 15 women with varied voting experiences and histories. Of the women, 12 identified as Latina, two as Black and one as white. When I asked if everyone had a voting plan and learned few did, I was hit by the reality that the act of voting is complicated and there is no single path that voters take to the ballot box, if they even get there. In the end, all but three voted and I could see how Kansas Leadership Center principles applied to our situation.
After my initial shock that so few were prepared to vote, I attempted to help by sending a group email with links to voter information sites, so they could look up polling locations and obtain sample ballots. It was soon clear that this quick attempt at technical work was not enough. I needed to take an adaptive approach. If I was going to support their motivation to vote, I needed to dig deeper to understand their individual situations and figure out the next steps.
I worked to keep the energy going and focused on starting where they were. I took time to learn each person’s personal history and experience with voting. Were they registered? Had they ever voted? If not, why not?
Misinformation and lack of information seemed to be a common thread. Several weren’t sure if they were registered to vote. Some knew they were, but had no idea where to vote or how to find that information. One thought her selections would be public information. Another wanted to vote by mail, but didn’t know the process. Two were covered by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and unable to vote. Another was a permanent resident of the U.S., and thus also could not vote. A few simply wanted information available in Spanish. Several thought voters were required to make a selection for every race or question on the ballot in order for any to count.
After I helped a few, more asked for help and together we inspired a collective purpose. We had momentum and they were willing and comfortable coming to me with questions. I continued to ask each person if they had a voting plan and if they needed help. We started encouraging others to vote. We celebrated when someone completed a step, such as registering or requesting a mail-in ballot.
As I helped each one navigate their situations, I determined where my work ended and theirs began. I gave the work back. I would not and could not tell them who to vote for. I could not go with them to vote. I could not mail their ballots. Together we printed sample ballots, researched candidates, looked up polling locations and more. But ultimately the act of voting was theirs.
I did hold on to the task of speaking from the heart. This was easy for me. All I had to do was draw on the emotion and passion my parents passed on to me regarding voting. As time went on, every member of the group came to understand that each vote does matter.
Since then the makeup of the group has changed slightly, but we continue our conversations about voting and elections. Topics have included the events and aftermath of the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol, the integrity of the election process and the recent vote in Kansas on a constitutional amendment regarding abortion. Just as before, in August I sent a group email asking about voting plans and offered to answer questions. I was happy when one said to me in Spanish, “I need you to help me find information on this question in Spanish!” She wanted to make sure was informed and understood the wording on the amendment questions clearly.
In the run-up to the midterm elections, I spoke with four of the women about what had motivated them to vote in 2020, if they planned to continue voting, their thoughts on the integrity of our election process in light of accusations of widespread fraud and what they plan on teaching their children about voting.
I was most interested in speaking to those like my father, who were eligible to vote after becoming naturalized citizens. I ended up speaking to three of them and one woman who is a first-generation citizen. I spoke to each separately, with the conversations taking place in Spanish, Spanglish and English. Several themes emerged from our conversations – looking for candidates who care for los Hispanos, voting for those who can’t, misinformation or lack of information, and doubts about the integrity of our election process.
In the next few sections, I will attempt to summarize our conversations. I have chosen to give them pseudonyms, in most cases, to protect their privacy.
Why didn’t you vote?
Sofia, a naturalized citizen in her 40s said before 2020 she last voted in 2008. When asked why she had not voted more often, her response indicated it was due to a lack of information. She replied, “¿porque no voté y no sé si voy a votar otra vez? Porque no hay información en español.”
During the August primary in Kansas, Sofia came to me one day, almost demanding information in Spanish on the amendment question. “Quiero estar seguro que yo entienda bien (I want to be sure I understand well).”
Veronica, a naturalized citizen in her 30s, expressed experiences and attitudes that were very similar to Sofia’s. Sworn in as a citizen at 18, Veronica didn’t vote until 2020, when she was 30. Her reasoning, “I had no clue, no guide who to vote for or who was running, where to vote. … It also didn’t seem important.”
Regina has been a naturalized citizen for over 30 years, but says she only started voting in 2020. As to why she didn’t vote before, she mentioned feeling that as a Mexican, her vote didn’t count.
Chloe, who was born in the U.S. to immigrant parents, was the only one who said she has voted consistently, because her mother makes sure she and her brother do. “Since she is not able to, she wants us to do it since we have the opportunity to do so. She wants to make sure we use our chance to change things. We have something she and others don’t.”
Why vote now?
Sofia says she voted in 2020 and in August because she wanted to make sure her voice was counted in what she saw as big decisions. The idea of a major topic seemed to play a role in her thoughts on voting in the future. She asked, “The last one was abortion, now what?” Once the connection between the other races and candidates and topics such as abortion was made, she seemed more committed to voting regularly.
For Veronica, her lack of interest changed in 2020 when she felt motivated to do her part to elect a president who cared for los Hispanos. She saw what was happening to immigrant families like hers and those around her and knew at that point she needed to do something. Although she admits the support she received from me and the group helped her feel informed and less nervous about casting her first ever votes, she says she cared so much this time around that, “I think I would have eventually asked what to do if you had not offered support.”
Regina started voting when she finally felt, “that my opinion can also count.” She went on to say, “I’m here, I’m a citizen and this is my country now. I should vote what I feel.”
Integrity of Election Process
On the topic of voter fraud, Sofia responded that she thought the U.S. had “cleaner” elections than other countries, but maybe not. Veronica also seemed to hold some doubt about the election process, also referring to how it is supposed to be different here than in other countries.
None expressed enough uncertainty to keep them from voting again. When Regina was first asked about voter fraud, she said it must be true because it’s always in the news and there was a partial recount after the August primary. She assumed the recount occurred because mistakes had been made. When I explained that the recount only happened because a small group requested and paid for it, and it only changed 63 out of 556,364 votes, she appeared more confident in the process and appreciated the explanation.
Chloe says neither she nor her mother believe the claims of excessive voter fraud.
Looking to the Future
The conversation turned to future voting. Asked what messages she would share with her children about voting, Sofia wants them to be informed above all else, to set their own criteria and be knowledgeable about their options. She also wants them to vote for the Latino community and those who can’t.
The first time Veronica voted, her three children were at her side. She says she will keep voting “for my kids” and because she wants elected officials who care for the Latino community.
Chloe’s son is only 4 years old, but she intends to teach him, “it’s important and a way for us to be heard.”
I can relate to these sentiments. My daughter joins me at the polls or to drop off my ballot. I always knew I would involve her, sharing my family’s respect and appreciation for voting with another generation. I hope when the time comes, she has her own group that supports each other in the process.
In the weeks to come, I will send my now standard email reminding our group about the upcoming election, where to find information and to make a voting plan. I’m sure we will print sample ballots, research candidates and cast our votes. And, I’m sure I’ll cry when I do.
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