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September 21, 2014

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Hispanics the focus of early push to register

Nevada hand-picked for initiative because of demographic’s clout

Beyond the Sun

When political veteran Gus West spoke with Andres Ramirez in the nation’s capital this year about staging a Hispanic voter registration project somewhere in the United States, Ramirez immediately suggested Nevada.

The onetime North Las Vegas mayoral candidate’s recommendation was not driven by an allegiance to his home state. It was, rather, a perfect fit because of the increasing attention Nevada’s growing Hispanic electorate had drawn on the national stage. The Hispanic factor was, after all, one of the reasons the Democratic Party chose Nevada for an early caucus in last year’s presidential race. The marked increase in Hispanic turnout throughout the previous decade had also been noticed. It was a foundation worth building on, West and Ramirez agreed.

On Saturday, West, board chairman of The Hispanic Institute, based in Washington, is to announce the voter registration project’s launch, together with a group that includes Cuauhtemoc “Temo” Figueroa, most recently the national Latino vote director for the Obama campaign.

Figueroa estimates the project will cost at least $1 million and create as many as 50 jobs statewide. It is yet another sign that “the Hispanic community is becoming an integral part of winning states” in presidential elections and that Nevada, in particular, “has so much at stake,” he says.

In 2008 Nevada was “one of three competitive states (along with New Mexico and Colorado), with the largest percentage increase of Hispanic voters” over the previous election cycle, going from 10 percent to 15 percent of the total turnout, according to the institute. And Ramirez, who is vice president of Hispanic programs for NDN, a Washington think tank, points to Census Bureau estimates that nearly 100,000 Hispanics statewide are eligible to vote but remain unregistered.

Figueroa says that starting the project now makes it easier for outside observers to judge its success because there’s nobody else working on the issue right now, so tracking upticks in Hispanic registration will be easier. He adds that organizers will be visiting neighborhoods in the Las Vegas Valley as well as Northern Nevada to encourage not just voter registration but also civic participation in general. The organizers will visit voters who tend to turn out only for presidential elections and inform them about the importance of upcoming local and state races. They will also tell people about public events and programs in their communities.

Those 100,000 potential voters have an additional strategic importance because after next year’s decennial census, an inevitable result will be redistricting, the creation of new congressional districts. The Legislature decides on redistricting, so next year’s local races for statewide offices hold added importance.

And Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is up for reelection next year, and there’s a statewide race for governor.

So starting now on registering and building interest among Hispanics has “so many advantageous factors,” says Ramirez, who will also be working with the project.

Assemblyman Ruben Kihuen, D-Las Vegas, benefitted from a previous round of redistricting, in 2006 becoming only the state’s third Hispanic legislator. His victory owed much to old-fashioned shoe leather and door-knocking, not to mention 2,000 handwritten thank you notes. He says getting Hispanics registered and to the polls “takes extra effort” because many are first-time voters, and the community itself is new, having more than quadrupled in the past two decades.

Figueroa allows that extra obstacles include the economic crisis, which has hit Hispanics particularly hard, with a 16.4 percent unemployment rate, according to one group’s recent estimate. “People won’t be thinking much about electoral politics,” he says.

But he hopes to get Hispanics to realize that, “if we don’t participate, we’ll be ignored.”

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