JEROME — Red, white and blue star-shaped balloons hovered over tables at El Sombrero, giving the pink-painted room a more celebratory feel than usual. In one corner of the restaurant, photos of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Paulette Jordan were arranged on a table in an artful display. Nearby, two young women manned a voter registration booth.
Forty-five minutes after the “Latinos for Paulette Jordan” meet-and-greet was scheduled to start, the guest of honor had yet to arrive.
Organizer Maria Bucklew glanced anxiously at the door, propped open to Jerome’s Main Street and festooned with welcoming balloons. But she wasn’t looking for Jordan.
“I don’t know where all the Latinos are,” she said with a small, nervous laugh, surveying the modest crowd that had gathered.
The purpose of the event, according to Bucklew, was to energize — or, as she put it, to “wake up” — a largely-untapped voting bloc in south-central Idaho: its steadily growing Hispanic population. While the meet-and-greet Sunday was specifically geared toward Jordan supporters, Bucklew’s frustration with the event’s relatively low turnout reflected a longstanding lament among the local Latino community: a broader lack of engagement and a lack of voice in the political arena.
“In Idaho, we’re not represented at all,” Bucklew, who lives in Jerome, said. “We need a lot of changes here.”
Low voter turnout
There are roughly 80,000 eligible Latino voters in Idaho, accounting for about 7 percent of all eligible voters in the state, according to a Pew Research Center study from 2016. It’s unknown exactly what percentage of Latinos who are eligible to vote are registered to vote, as the Secretary of State’s office doesn’t track that data. Voter turnout among Idaho’s Hispanic population, however, is typically low.
The lack of political engagement may be due in part to practical barriers, such as a scarcity of Spanish-language campaign materials and limited access to polling places. But some members of the Latino community say it’s also the result of years of feeling disconnected from elected officials.
One voter at Sunday’s meet-and-greet, a Twin Falls resident who gave his name as Regio, said he frequently sees statewide politicians reach out to the Latino community during campaign season, when it’s “useful.” For a politician to maintain that same level of engagement once elected to office is rare, Regio said.
“Most of us Hispanic people, especially Mexicans, we’ve been through this rodeo before,” he said. “It’s come to the point where Hispanic people just don’t care about politicians anymore, because they know what’s going to happen.”
Matt Miles, a political science professor at Brigham Young University-Idaho, says low political engagement among Latinos can contribute to a cycle: the fewer Latinos vote, the less incentive politicians have to reach out to them.
“If all the Latinos were voting in a united bloc, they would have a lot of power in the state of Idaho,” Miles said. “But until they mobilize and organize, elected officials won’t care about them.”
For many in the Latino community, the disconnect from state politics may not be voluntary.
“There’s a huge population here that is waiting to be engaged and interested in being involved,” said Kathy Griesmyer, a public policy strategist with the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho.
Griesmyer and Leo Morales, executive director of the Idaho ACLU, say they believe politicians can and should do more to reach out to Latino residents — for instance, handing out Spanish language campaign flyers. Neither Jordan nor her opponent, Republican Lt. Gov. Brad Little, have published materials in Spanish, Griesmyer noted.
Morales said that when the ACLU makes calls around election time reminding people to vote, Latino residents often ask who is running for office.
“What that tells us is just that with the candidates themselves and the parties, there’s just not enough work being done to get the information out to the community,” Morales said.
When election day rolls around, access to the polls can be limited for some people, particularly those who work long hours or multiple jobs, Morales added. He also sees a “lack of education” on other methods of voting for people who are unable to make it to the polls, such as early voting and absentee ballots.
Last month, Twin Falls opened its own chapter of the Idaho Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, a Treasure Valley-based nonprofit. Rep. Clark Kauffman of Filer, who serves on the state’s Commission for Hispanic Affairs, said he hopes the organization will help boost community involvement — and political engagement — among the Magic Valley’s Hispanic population.
“I think out of that will come business leaders that will be engaged and that will help people be engaged in politics in the process,” Kauffman said.
In south-central Idaho, where the majority of state elected officials are Republicans, building trust between politicians and the Latino community may come with additional challenges.
Kauffman, a Republican, said he has personally experienced how the barriers to forming relationships can become magnified when an elected official has an “R” next to his or her name.
“That’s a real tough nut to crack because they hear the national news, they hear what’s going on, and sometimes it creates rumors in the local community,” Kauffman said.
“It’s really hard to get around,” he continued. “And I’m not sure if you get around it or if you just sit and visit with people and tell them that we’re not all that way.”
Of course, not all Latinos identify as Democrats. Ideologically speaking, Miles noted, Latino voters tend not to fit neatly into either Democrat or Republican boxes.
Ruby Cadena of Twin Falls and her 16-year-old daughter, Alondra, are Republicans. As Catholics, they say they are drawn to the GOP’s emphasis on traditional family values and stances on social issues such as abortion.
The Cadenas believe there are others in the local Latino community who share the Republican Party’s socially conservative views. But they recognize that rhetoric and policies around immigration have made the GOP an increasingly less-appealing option for Latino voters. In one Pew poll, 54 percent of Latino registered voters said they believed the Democratic Party has more concern for Latinos than the Republican Party, compared to 11 percent who said they believed the Republican party has more concern. Twenty-eight percent of respondents said they saw no difference.
Ruby and Alondra said they hope to introduce other Latinos to the Republican Party, whether through engaging strangers in conversation or inviting friends to GOP events.
“We do want to have more Latinos come and check this out and see the other side of politics,” Ruby said. “We want to try to open their minds.”
But a lack of support for Republicans doesn’t necessarily translate into votes for Democratic candidates.
Democrats will “have to convince Latinos in Idaho that it’s worth it to come to the polls and vote,” Miles said. “It’s not enough that they say, ‘Don’t be a Republican.’ They have to give them a compelling reason to be a Democrat instead.”
At the meet-and-greet in Jerome, Jordan arrived and took the stage. For the bulk of her ten-minute speech, she riffed on familiar campaign talking points. She closed her remarks by addressing the Latinos in the room, briefly touching on hot-button national issues such as DACA and ICE’s enforcement of new practices under the Trump administration.
“They’re especially counting on the Hispanic community to not vote,” Jordan told the crowd. “And to me, that’s a huge discrepancy. Because while they expect you all to not vote, they also expect you to continue to not be a part of these legislative conversations.”
Afterward, as Jordan mingled and posed for photos with supporters, Regio said he liked what he heard, but remained cautiously optimistic.
“I’m not going to say she’s different from other people in the past,” he said. “Sometimes it requires more than just an event for Hispanics.”
He picked up a campaign flyer, one of several strewn on the table in front of him, and flipped through.
“In all the years I’ve been here,” he said, “I’ve never seen one of these in Spanish.”