The day before a class action civil rights lawsuit accusing Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his office of wide-scale civil rights violations went to trial in Phoenix, a handful of people stood at the corner of North 27th Avenue and West Indian School Road just off the city’s Black Canyon Freeway.
Wearing “Adios Arpaio” T-shirts, the small group staged a protest at one of the busiest intersections in mostly Latino West Phoenix, aimed at what some consider two of Arizona’s biggest problems: Arpaio and apathy.
Some signs read, “Honk If You Don’t Like Arpaio.” Others bore the words, “Register to Vote Here.” After an hour, 11 people registered to vote.
“I know that sounds tiny,” said Daria Ovide, a coordinator for the Campaign for Arizona’s Future, a union-financed group working to register Latino voters in Arizona, a key battleground state. “But believe me, it matters.”
What happens at thousands of intersections, car shows and carnivals when eligible, but unregistered Latino voters, and avid canvassers like Ovide meet, may well determine the outcome of the next presidential election. Those meetings could so dramatically reshape the political landscape, activists and analysts agree that consistently red states could become swing states or turn blue.
Right now in 10 battleground states -- places where both the Obama and Romney campaigns say victory is feasible -- there are 12.1 million unregistered, but potentially eligible, Latino adults, according to new data released late Thursday by the Center for American Progress, a Washington, D.C., think tank. In uber-important Florida, the state's 1.4 million unregistered, potentially eligible Latino adults represent a group of voters five times larger than Obama’s margin of victory in 2008.
“If just a portion of these potential voters do come out and vote they could swing the election,” said Philip Wolgin, an immigration policy analyst at the center. “And while I don’t think that Texas is going to become a swing state tomorrow, I also don’t think that four years ago anyone thought that Arizona would be either. Look at it now.”
In Arizona, 405,300 Latino U.S. citizens do not have voting credentials. And another 575,300 Latino permanent legal residents could become naturalized citizens, register and vote.
In 2008, John McCain carried the state by 195,404 votes.
These potential voters, according to a series of recent polls, care deeply about immigration issues like racial profiling by law enforcement and the Supreme Court’s June decision on Arizona’s SB170, “show me your papers” laws, as well as jobs, education and health care, said Clarissa Martinez, the National Council of La Raza's director of civic engagement and immigration. The National Council of La Raza (NCLR) is a Washington, D.C.-based civil rights organization.
Having more Hispanic voters in the political system, could force action on some of the nation’s more intractable political issues, she said.
For most Central and South American immigrants, the wait for a visa that allows for legal immigration to the United States can stretch for two decades or more. Once here, immigrants may apply for legal permanent residency. Most legal permanent residents must wait three to five years to apply for citizenship. Then, after passing English-language proficiency, U.S. civics and history exams and paying an $800 fee, legal permanent residents typically wait a minimum of four to six months to be summoned to a swearing in ceremony where they become U.S. citizens.
NCLR is working with local nonprofit agencies and canvassers in states like Florida, Nevada, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Texas, California, North Carolina, New York and Idaho to help those who are eligible to become naturalized citizens do so and those who can register to vote obtain credentials.
“When we talk about electoral expansion, you really are talking about sweeping changes to the nation’s political calculus, there’s no doubt,” said Martinez. “But part of the challenge is that the best resourced efforts are concentrated in election years and are associated with candidates or parties who are interested in the short-term. They want to win the next election.”
To win the next election, most campaigns focus their energy and money on reaching so-called habitual voters or reducing the number of people who turn out to vote for the opposition. Habitual voters are the share of already registered voters who vote in every election possible.
In some ways, the limited interest political parties and candidates have shown in helping people to become citizens is good, said Martinez.
Politicizing the citizenship process could become unseemly. On the other, investment in naturalization and voter registration work is desperately needed right now, she said.
In Phoenix, the "Adios Arpiao" crew gets the funding it needs from Unite Here, a hospitality workers union, and the AFL-CIO, said Ovide. The group aims to counterbalance Voter ID policies, the effects of shortened early voting periods and efforts to identify alleged non-citizens on voter rolls around the country. Opponents say these measures will make it more difficult for many older voters, minorities and low -income adults to participate. Proponents insist that the laws protect the integrity of the voting process and prevent alleged voter fraud.
The day that Arpaio’s trial began, canvasser’s wearing "Adios Arpaio" T-shirts fanned out to supermarkets, a gas station, a library and a restaurant in hopes of registering Latino voters.
That day, they registered 150, Ovide said.