Sunday, April 13, 2008

Efforts seek to engage young Latino voters

This is exciting! It's also important to note that there are many organizations and community efforts that are also empowering our young future leaders to be critical political participants. We should all seek out those efforts and contribute to them. -Patricia

By Brandi Grissom | El Paso Times

AUSTIN - An online reality-TV-style contest is about to create the next Latino political reporter in a presidential election season that itself has seemed at times like a wacky competition.

The new online contest created by Sí TV and Voto Latino is about more than beautiful young people getting their 15 minutes of fame, though. It's one of several efforts nationwide designed to inspire young Hispanic voters to engage in the political process.

"In this presidential election, interest in the young Latino vote is higher than ever, and we want to bring the community's voices to the forefront," said Michael Schwimmer, Sí TV CEO.

In Texas, overall voter participation increased dramatically in the March primary elections. More than 4.2 million voters cast their ballots in the Republican and Democratic primaries, breaking a record set 20 years earlier.

And the heated presidential campaigns of Hillary Rodham Clinton, John McCain and Barack Obama are expected to keep voters coming back to the polls for the general election in November.

"It's been a lot easier in this election cycle simply because of the presidential race and the fact that the contest still is going on, and it's caught a lot of interest," said University of Texas at El Paso political science Professor Greg Rocha.

The Latino vote nationwide is expected to top 9 million, an increase of 23 percent compared to 2004, according to the Tomas River Policy Institute at the University of Southern California. Increased citizenship rates and Latino youth coming of age would drive growth of about 1.7 million voters, institute President Harry Pachon said in December.

Schwimmer said many Latinos began to recognize the size and potential strength of their community in 2006 during nationwide protests against anti-immigration proposals in Congress.

"It helped raise their level of consciousness that in fact they do have political power," he said.

The Sí TV-Voto Latino contest allows young voters to submit their own sort of campaign video explaining why they should be a reporter at the Republican and Democratic national conventions this summer.

Online viewers will pick the top 10 candidates. Then, a panel of judges, including actress and Voto Latino co-founder Rosario Dawson, former U.S. Rep. Henry Bonilla and CNN's Rick Sanchez, will choose two winners to cover the conventions for Sí TV.

The contest is meant to engage both reporter hopefuls who send in videos and viewers who watch their peers and listen to their ideas about politics and issues.

"Young people, of any ethnicity quite frankly, want the freedom to express their opinions and do it in way they can share that opinion with others in a sort of nonjudgmental way," Schwimmer said.

The Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, based in San Antonio, is also working to get young Latino voters excited about voting.

Working with high schools in eight states, including Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, project Vice President Lydia Camarillo said, the group's goal is get more than 100,000 young Latino registered to vote this year.

Already, she said, more than 18,000 Latino high schoolers have registered.

But more than registering, Camarillo said, the group is urging students to make sure they vote.

"It's just trying to figure out what's the best way to capture their imagination about why it's important for them," she said.

Florida-based Democracia U.S.A. is hoping to push young Latinos to the polls, too, hosting voter registration drives, citizenship classes and leadership courses in Florida, Arizona, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Michael Apodaca, past president of the Texas Young Democrats, said efforts targeting El Paso's young Latino voters would likely ramp up as the November election draws closer.

Voting is a civic duty, an obligation, said UTEP sophomore Frank Rodriguez, 20, who was an election judge during the runoff contests this week. While he has long considered politics important, Rodriguez said, this year he has seen more of his peers become interested, too.

"A lot of my friends are like, 'Yeah, I went to vote today,' and I'm like, 'Good, you're supposed to vote,' " he said.

UTEP junior Julie Cruz, 21, said issues that concern her most in the presidential race are ones that affect her life, like the suffering economy and federal plans to build a fence on the border.

The candidates themselves and their fights with one another are also a lightning rod for her and many of her friends.

"It's kind of suspenseful," she said.

UTEP Professor Rocha said in a presidential election cycle as colorful as this one, getting young Latino voters, or any other voters, to the polls is not a big challenge.

The tougher task, he said, will be getting them to come back for contests in local elections that may not be as exciting but could have a bigger impact on their daily lives.

"It's going to be something that's just going to take a while," Rocha said. "It won't be done overnight."

Brandi Grissom can be reached at; (512) 479-6606.

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