AUSTIN, Texas – The historically lower voter turnout levels in the Rio Grande Valley can be put down, in part, to Hispanics being disillusioned by public corruption.
Other reasons include a lack of competitive elections caused by one party domination, very little public discourse on issues, and a high level of poverty.
These are the conclusions contained in a study of attitudes towards voting by Hispanics in Texas. The study, conducted for the Texas Organizing Project (TOP), included interviews with Hispanics in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, El Paso and the Valley.
On a webinar, Dr. Cecilia Balli, a journalist, researcher and anthropologist, said the study found some unique findings in the Valley. The webinar, titled 2020 Election & the Texas Latino Vote, was hosted by the Mexican American Legislative Caucus (MALC).
“In the Rio Grande Valley we had a discourse, several discourses, that emerged very strongly around local political culture. We were very concerned after having done interviews in the Valley – and I am from the Valley, I am from Brownsville,” Balli said.
“I think a lot of you can relate to these findings. It was interesting to us how prevalent it came up in almost every conversation. A sense that politics are controlled by very few people. That because there isn’t competition between the parties, real competition, because it is controlled by Democrats, there is very little discussion of issues or platforms.”
Instead of campaigns being dominated by a discussion on issues or platforms, in the Valley, candidates largely run on their name, their photo, and how well they are known, Balli explained.
“High levels of public corruption across the board, from school districts to judicial offices. And then all of that combined with extreme poverty, makes a lot of people doubt that they can make a difference by voting. They have stayed focused, some of them, on what they can control more immediately,” Balli said.
“I think the region also feels neglected and forgotten by people in Austin and Washington.”
Balli is based in Central Texas. She said she did go down to the Valley last week to interview voters. She said it would be wrong to dismiss or downplay the voting patterns in the Valley in this year’s general election, as some Latino analysts have done.
“I am completely sympathetic to this need to correct the public narrative and to put it into perspective in terms of the numbers but I think it would be a mistake for us to start saying those people are not like us. They think differently. I think there is a lot we can learn in the Rio Grande Valley that applies to Latinos as a whole,” Balli said.
Balli said she spoke with Republican voters in the Valley.
“They sounded a lot like the Republicans that we spoke with in the major cities. So, it is not a world away where everybody wears cowboy boots and has oil jobs. I think I heard a political consultant saying that. It is much more diverse. We have Brownsville and McAllen which are not rural areas.”
Balli explained the purpose of the study, which took place before the general election.
“We wanted to dig deep and try to understand in a more nuanced way why the Latino voter turnout is not as high as we would like. What drives people to vote, how do they make sense of the issues, how do they relate to government. So, we spent a year and a half working on the study. We did five months of interviews in five major regions: El Paso, Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and the Rio Grande Valley.
“We really were asking some of the ‘why’ questions that are harder to get out of folks. You need to be able to understand people’s life stories to fully get why they are engaging or not engaging and how they see the world through a political lens. So we feel like our work really compliments the quantitative work which is what we normally get in the political science and voting studies.”
Balli said the study was purposefully looking for people who are not involved in political organizations.
“One of the findings was around people that don’t vote. Getting a little more into how they think. And what we found is that what is driving nonvoting is not apathy in the sense that we didn’t meet people who were fully informed about politics, who knew what the stakes were for their own lives and they were just choosing just not to participate,” Balli explained.
“Instead, nonvoters tend to not be very sure their vote matters, they don’t come from families or backgrounds where they have been voting and they are not sure people in government care about people like them. They often express a sense of disempowerment.”
Balli said there is good reason to support the efforts of MALC to bring Mexican-American Studies into the classrooms of Texas public schools.
“In the African-American community there is a strong discourse of a historical struggle to fight for voting rights and to fight for equal rights. That history exists in Texas with Mexican Americans but it is not a history that moves people to vote. And that is where the work that MALC is doing to promote Mexican American studies in the classroom is crucial,” Balli said.
“We found that Latinos that we interviewed struggle to relate to that conversation directly about systemic racism. When. We asked them had they faced discrimination in their lives or if they had been made to feel different by other people, almost all of them said ‘yes.’ We really need to start inserting our history and our political struggles into the mainstream narrative in Texas and into the classroom.”
Here is a podcast of the MALC webinar:
Another finding of the study, Balli said, is that Hispanics do not follow state government very well. She thought this would be of great interest to the many listeners to the webinar that are involved in state politics and government.
“Folks get involved with national presidential politics when they are young. They settle somewhere. They buy a house, they have kids. They start paying more attention to local politics. Almost no one we spoke to could tell us exactly what state government does. They could not name the people that represent them at the state level. It is so crucial to their lives around healthcare and education. So, we have to make that connection better.”
Balli had one last comment about the Valley and it centered on the enthusiasm among supporters of President Trump.
“One of the things that happened in the Rio Grande Valley is they started a movement, the Trump supporters started a movement of their own. It was not about the financial investment. They got on social media, WhatsApp. They created these communities. People down there are dying to feel like they belong to something. We need to figure out on the organizing side, how do we create that kind of energy that feels like it comes from people themselves.”
TOP’s executive director, Michelle Tremillo, also participated in the MALC webinar. She said there is not shortcut to getting more Hispanics to vote.
“There are no shortcuts. This is a year-round relationship. We need investment year round, not just at election time. We know who was investing and talking to Latino voters in this past election. Perhaps not just by the Biden campaign, right? It is very, very important that we recognize that investment needs to happen year round,” Tremillo said.
Tremillo noted that more than half of registered Latino voters had not cast a ballot at the end of early voting. “There is another two million that are unregistered but eligible that we need to make a relationship with. So, first and foremost we need to be talking to people,” she said.
The moderator of the webinar was state Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, chairman of MALC. Looking at the Hispanic vote through the Democratic Party prism, Anchia said he was disappointed how little was spent on Hispanic outreach.
“There was not a lot of communication. The Biden campaign spent what, five million bucks statewide, with 22 media markets and the tenth largest economy in the world. It really has been a scant investment,” he said.
Dr. Matt Barreto of Latino Decisions also spoke on the MALC webinar. In the interests of full disclosure, Barreto said he did Latino polling and research for the Biden campaign.
“It is true that the Biden campaign did not prioritize Texas a tipping point state and the reason is, it was not a tipping point state. The tipping point states were Pennsylvania and Arizona. That is just a fact of reality,” Barreto said. “Now, that does not mean that I do not want personally to see more investment in Texas. I do.”
Barreto said investment a longterm investment in Hispanic outreach had to be in place before a national candidate’s financial investment could make a significant difference.
“The campaign comes in and tries to push the final vote over the margin. What happened in Arizona and Georgia is ten years of grassroots organizing. And so to that last point, Biden could have dumped ten more million dollars in (Texas). That would not have done anything. What needed to happen is continued investment in organizations in Texas and just organic, bottom up investment from local organizations that can connect with people,” Barreto said.
“I think Cecilia’s example of the Trump supporters doing that… maybe they were seeded a lit bit by some, but it wasn’t like Trump made some huge investment in South Texas. He didn’t. It just started to happen.”
Barreto said the investment needs to take place now.
“Then the campaigns can come in and work with and take advantage of the groups on the ground. They can benefit from the boots on the ground. It has to be local. It has to be culturally relevant. You need different groups in the Rio Grande Valley organizing than you do in Dallas and Austin. Those are very different constituents. You cannot send a message of super urban, progressive, policy issues to people who are in rural parts of the state and vice versa.”
The other speaker on the webinar was Arturo Vargas, of the NALEO Educational Fund.
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