Political News

She can't vote, but she wants every other young Latino who can at the polls

Posted May 20, 2018 11:24 a.m. EDT

— Marisol Chavez wants young Latino voters to make a difference in a way she can't.

She wasn't born in America and is a recipient of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. That makes her very invested in the decisions of the administration of President Donald Trump, and although she cannot influence them at the ballot box, she hopes to inspire those who can.

"I can't vote, so to me I'm using that as empowerment and sharing my story and having other people realize that they have the power to vote," the 27-year-old says. "They need to take advantage of it."

She is a field organizer in Palmdale, California, for the progressive organization NextGen America, a group funded by billionaire Tom Steyer that is making a concerted effort to focus on connecting with young voters in new ways, specifically in 11 states the group feels could see seats flip to the Democrats.

One of those is the 25th Congressional District, currently represented by Republican Steve Knight, where Chavez is volunteering. Knight won re-election in 2016 by 6 points, but Hillary Clinton carried the district by 7.

NextGen thinks there could be enough momentum to make it a Democratic seat.

The group hopes the Trump administration's moves to end DACA and build a border wall, and lack of congressional movement on finding a solution to keep DACA alive, will motivate young voters to the polls.

Young people in Santa Clarita share their anger about these policies with Chavez. But they feel helpless. That's why Chavez goes to high schools to register voters who hadn't considered getting involved.

"A lot of what I hear is that their vote doesn't matter," Chavez says.

She points to nail-biting races and statistics to persuade them otherwise. And she also goes to the places where she knows young Latino kids will be hanging out, like an ice cream shop called La Michoacana.

She stands in line at the store asking young Latinos in Santa Clarita to take a survey, asks what issues they care about. Inevitably, the cost of living, college and immigration come up.

So many people here know someone whose status is threatened by the end of the DACA scheme, or who are separated from family members who live in another country, she says. That's when she tells them about herself, standing there in line for ice cream. Sometimes she meets other DACA recipients. She encourages them to urge their friends to register to vote.

Steyer, a 60-year-old former hedge fund executive, has become a leading voice in calling for the impeachment of President Trump. He's pledged $30 million of his own money on efforts to mobilize young voters.

Steyer knows statistics show young voters don't come out for midterms. Their levels dropped in the past two cycles between presidential and midterm elections. Still, he believes Trump's election has awakened a "sleeping giant" in young voters, who typically drop off from voting between presidential and midterm elections.

"This is the most impactful, effective and positive thing that we can be doing in 2018 is to make sure young voters are involved and aware of how important they are and that they can change the country," Steyer says. 

To do it successfully, they are trying to engage early and often. The group put on an event hosted by activist and actress Alyssa Milano focused on bringing the Democratic candidates in front of a group of young voters with topics they care about.

Activists and volunteers for the group are trying to learn the difference in language of young voters, a generational gap that exists even for volunteers just a few years older. They've had a bit of trial and error with memes that didn't land quite right.

Mia Lopez travels around the Los Angeles area trying to make one thing clear: Every vote matters.

It's something no one ever told her when she was at high school, the now-Cal-State Bakersfield student says.

Lopez, 23, attended an inner-city school in Los Angeles that was made up of mostly black and Hispanic students, a prime voter base. She says no grass roots effort or big group ever reached out to her to talk about voting.

That's exactly what she wants to change.

"We never had that. Nobody showed up," Lopez says. "Nobody showed up to talk about voting with us. It just wasn't something we talked about."

She recognizes the minority vote -- especially the youth vote -- could be the key in several midterm elections.

The election of Trump is what catapulted her into action, turning her from an everyday college student into an organizer for NextGen America.

"I was pretty ignorant about what's going on in our country, and I wanted to become more informed and I felt like I'm an American and it's kind of my duty to get involved," Lopez says. "I think there's kind of a problem within the black community, that we feel like we don't feel a part of this country, so we kind of don't get involved, and I think we need to get more involved."

Both Chavez and Lopez say they have seen a very strong response from students they've registered to vote. Some are so excited, they even check the box to become poll workers. They're seeing that in high schools, two-year colleges and at technical colleges.

Groups like NextGen and organizers like Chavez and Lopez say the key will be to keep hitting these areas and connecting with students in a way that hasn't happened before, sticking with them until the election on November 6.

"There was a disconnected youth that think ... nobody speaks for me or I don't see anyone who represents me," Lopez says.

That's where these volunteers believe the tide can turn. They've seen the "spark" in the faces of students who realize they can make a difference.

"It's really important. We try to keep telling them, it's time to raise their voice," Chavez says.