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Votes

Arlington Latinos Look to Flex Political Muscle

Officials and activists kick-off regional voter awareness and registration campaign.

County Board member Walter Tejada joined elected Latino officials from across the region last week to announce the start of a voter registration drive, with the goal of getting tens of thousands of Spanish-speaking citizens to the polls this November for the first time.

Throughout the summer and fall, Tejada and other Latino activists will canvass Arlington neighborhoods speaking to residents about the importance of voting and helping them acquire the necessary paperwork to register.

"We have got to educate the community about the nuances of being able to vote," Tejada said during a June 12 press conference. "We have to make sure people understand who can and can't vote, and how to register."

Underscoring the need for an aggressive registration campaign is an estimate by County Treasurer Frank O’Leary that a mere 1,600 Latinos in the county are registered to vote, and approximately 580 cast ballots in 2005— a turnout of 36.5 percent.

In comparison, Ken Billingsley, the director of demographics for the Northern Virginia Regional Commission, believes that more than 13,000 Arlington Latinos are American citizens above the age of 18, and therefore eligible to vote. According to Census estimates, there are approximately 42,500 Latinos living in Arlington, but only 41 percent of them are citizens, Billingsley said.

"[Tejada] has his work cut out for him," O’Leary added.

THOSE WONDERING WHY the regional campaign is beginning four months before the election — when the vast majority of the public has yet to tune into to the political brinkmanship already underway — need look no further than the efforts' title: "We marched, now we vote."

Since hundreds of thousands of Latinos around the nation took to the streets this past spring to protest against restrictive immigration legislation being discussed in Congress, political observers have wondered if the marches would galvanize those communities to vote in greater numbers.

Local Latino leaders say that for many, the march on the Mall, and the student demonstrations held along Wilson Boulevard, was their first foray into political activism. Now that an interest in politics has been sparked, Latinos in Arlington are beginning to ask how they can become more involved and affect change at the local, state and federal levels.

The demonstrations "energized a political base that didn't exist before," said Andres Tobar, chair of Virginia Coalition of Latino Organizations. "Now that immigrants see their whole future is impacted by the people they elect, they will see the value in going out and voting."

While many Latinos in Northern Virginia have become influential businessman or outspoken community leaders, it is time for the population to wield an equivalent influence at the ballot box, speakers at the press conference said.

"We're not just here as a strong economic force as we said all along during the immigration debate," said Gustavo F. Velasquez, the director of the District of Columbia's Office on Latino Affairs. Latinos have to show that "we're also a strong political force."

Therefore, Latino leaders, including Tejada, Prince George's County Council member Will Campos and Maryland Delegate Ana-Sol Gutierrez, decided to spearhead the campaign, which they hope will get more than 50,000 Latinos in the metropolitan area to register to vote. It is time, they said, for Latinos to educate their own communities about the political process, and not rely on outside groups to lead registration efforts.

"We can't wait for people to do the job for us," said Juan Carlos Ruiz, one of the leaders of the National Capital Immigration Coalition. This has to be the "summer of democracy" and Latino activists need "to turn over every rock on the street and find people to vote," he added.

THE REGISTRATION campaign will be airing commercials on Spanish-language television and radio stations starting in the coming weeks. They will also be encouraging the public to visit the Web site — www.yamarchamosahoravotamos.org— and will have booths at summer festivals and fairs.

The first key to the drive's success will be simple education. There is much confusion in the community over who is eligible to vote and how the process works, Latino leaders said.

A major hurdle the organizers will have to overcome is the lack of tradition of voting in immigrants' native countries, and a deep-seeded distrust of the political process, said Maryland Delegate Gutierrez.

"Part of the educational campaign is to teach them that their votes are important ... and that elections are clean here," said Leni Gonzalez, a board member of the Institute for Mexicans Abroad.

New Latino voters must also become cognizant of the availability of absentee ballots.

For many Latinos, voting becomes an economic decision. "Many work starting at 5 a.m. and don't get off until late at night," Gutierrez said. They could "get fined or lose a day's wages," if they skipped work to vote.

Anyone who is scheduled to work 11 or more hours on election day qualifies for an absentee ballot, said Arlington Registrar Linda Lindberg. In-person absentee voting begins at the end of September this year and concludes on Nov. 4, three days before the election.

The other main focus of the new registration drive will be youth and students above the age of 18. Information sessions will be held at Arlington schools and community centers, and the campaign's partners will use the Internet to help generate interest among Net-savvy young adults.

"You saw the leadership young people displayed in the marches and rallies," Tejada said. "They are eager to participate."

The organizers of the registration drive believe they can get 50,000 new voters across the region, with perhaps several thousand from Arlington. They harbor no illusions that the thousands of Latinos marching earlier this year will — or can — vote this fall. But they do believe that by raising the community’s political awareness, they can have a massive impact on elections in the coming decades.

"We can't turn this around in a short period of time," said Tobar, the head of VALCAO. "But [the campaign] will pay dividends in the future."