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Latino voter engagement groups have Georgia on their mind | Senate runoff

With days before the Dec. 6 runoff, groups are making calculated efforts to get Latinos to the polls for elections to come.

ATLANTA — Georgia's Latino voting bloc is young and growing - and it has the power to sway razor-thin elections, analysts say.

As Georgia is in the thick of another Senate runoff race, large civic engagement groups are pumping money and efforts into the state. Several groups have a new focus: Latinos.

"What we're seeing is that early and continued investment is key to cracking this code," said Leslie Palomino, Georgia senior lead for civic engagement group Poder Latinx.

The organization functions in four states: Arizona, Washington, Florida and Georgia. Taking a look at its website and it's clear that the Peach State is taking precedence during this runoff election.

Latinx: Georgia's quickly-growing voting bloc

Palomino said their efforts are not necessarily about backing a candidate but informing a growing community about key election dates and mobilizing them to the polls -- adding that in Georgia, there's a knowledge gap on why the state does runoffs and how they work. 

With 1.1 million Latinos in Georgia, according to the 2020 census, and more than 300,000 Hispanic registered voters - there's a lot of untapped potential to get more people to the polls. To note, a majority of those registered voters are labeled as active, according to the Secretary of State's Office, meaning they voted in the last two elections.

"Informing the community of the process and what is at stake in the runoff will be key to increasing turnout," Palomino said.

Around 24,000 voters, who identified as Hispanic have already voted early in the runoff election, data from the SOS office revealed Friday. The total is likely to increase after polls close Friday evening.

With Georgia's historic razor-thin margins that have determined elections, Palomino said engaging new voters could sway this election but reaching the community is really the battle.

This is why the group leans on culture to help drive civic participation. 

During the early voting runoff period, Poder Latinx partnered with small businesses and other groups to host a Taco Tuesday to the Polls and a World Cup watch party - asking people to pledge to vote. They've taken their outreach to metro Atlanta's college campuses too, most recently making stops at Georgia State University and Georgia Tech.

A rendition of "Georgia On My Mind" with the cumbia and Latin trap stylings of Las Cafeteras, QVLN, and Sergio Mendoza was released during last year's runoff. It's recently seen a resurgence on TikTok and Instagram as Gen Z and younger millennials encourage their peers to get out to vote.

Poder Latinx said they plan on doing more with the song very soon.

Outreach and recent get-out-the-vote efforts are rooted in culture - and also backed by data. 

Voto Latino, which also studies the Latinx electorate, said in 2020 the organization registered and turned out 32,000 Latino voters nationwide. Of them, 19,000 were first-time voters.

"And Latinos by and far voted early in-person," Maria Teresa Kumar, co-founder and CEO of Voto Latino said in a call to reporters.

She said the group was taking a pointed approach to the 175,000 Latino voters in the state, noting that in the last year's runoff, efforts were almost solely concentrated in a few counties around the metro Atlanta area like Fulton, DeKalb and Gwinnett counties. Nearly half of Georgia's Latinx voters call those counties, as well as, Clayton and Cobb home.

"They voted early and the largest group of Latino voters were 18 to 29 years old," she said of the 2021 voters. "This highlights the changing demographics playing out in Georgia, where young Latinos are the fastest-growing electorate in the state."

The Voto Latino leader said the voting block will only grow, revealing research that showed roughly 20% of school-aged children in Georgia are of Latino descent. In a few years, this signals that the state will have a new cultural makeup of voters.

With an eye to the future, voter engagement groups said the growing voting bloc is why it's important to get Latinos to the polls now.

"The Latino community in Georgia is young and many are new voters," Palomina said. "In this runoff, we look to continuing advancing the needle and getting more Latinx to the polls because as we know, this historic and competitive runoff election will determine the makeup of the Senate in Congress, determine the president's agenda, and set the tone for local and national legislative agendas that directly impact the Latino community."

What voters care about

Data shows, the future is Latina.

A slim majority of the nation's Latino and Hispanic voters are female, according to Pew Research. This growth comes as Hispanic enrollment reached a new high at four-year colleges in the U.S. - a majority of them women.

Poder Latinx has quite literally put two and two together.

On Friday, Poder Latinx hosted Latina to the Polls, a caravan encouraging young female Latinx voters to cast their ballot on the last day of the runoff early voting period. This is on top of specific outreach reach efforts on college campuses geared to Latina students.

"We're targeting Gwinnett County. It is one of the most diverse counties in the southeast (part) of the country," Palomino explained. "And yet, as you know, Latinas are leaders in our country. We're caregivers and decision-makers at home and we make up a powerful voice and a force at the ballot box."

Besides Florida, Georgia has the second-greatest share of Latino voters in the southeast, according to Pew Research. This is why Voto Latino has been intent on studying their voting habits as it can clue in what's next for the nation in future elections.

"One of the things that we have learned, and it was the very first time that we have seen in the Latino community, while if you take the Latino electorate as a whole, immigration does not pop up as a top five issue," Kumar said in a call to reporters.

Taking a closer look at the data, that's not the case across the board.

"Young Latinos name it among a top three issue. It is first the economy and inflation and then it ties with abortion as an issue for them," she said.

Voto Latino reports there are roughly 16 million Americans that live disproportionately in mixed-status families. This means family makeup could be of undocumented family members, some who are permanent residents - people who can't vote - with citizens or visa holders.

Younger and growing Latino voters means more voter eligibility - and knowing what they care about can help connect candidates to voters who have never cast a ballot.

What it means for Georgia

Every vote counts - as made evident with the 2021 runoff election and the 2020 presidential election.

Palomino said mobilizing is hard work but building on the engagement to keep momentum through a runoff is a greater challenge. She thinks this is why their culturally centered projects can blow past the politics and bring together the community.

"I think that the community was very -- they felt seen, especially when we go out to these restaurants where they're more like Latinx population," she said about their outreach events.

In sharing early data about the 2022 midterm election, Voto Latino echoed the importance of speaking with Latinx voters.

"We've not let the narrative say that Latinos just did not show up and did not show up for a lot of the progressive values that we have been able to see in this community for over a decade. One of the things that we also noted was the fact that many Latino voters in particular were not getting contacted in a place like Arizona," Kumar said.

It's probably why Georgia has been inundated with canvassers and groups have built up their phone bank teams. Voto Latino said it would be doubling down on digital advertising, radio influences, and other "tried and true" tactics. Poder Latinx said bilingual contact efforts are more important than ever.

"Like every Latinx vote in Georgia is so important since Georgia is almost always decided on such slim margins and Latinx voters can make up that difference," Palomino said.

No matter what happens come Dec. 6 for runoff, civic engagement groups said they've built more ground to get Latinx voters to the polls in the next election.

"And I do believe that in 2024, they're going to play a much larger role because of the aging in of Latinos," Kumar said.

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