The Latino Vote: Will the Sleeping Giant Finally Wake Up?

On the importance of the Latino vote, what matters to them, and drug policy as an underestimated issue.

The Latino population is the one of the fastest growing communities in the country. By 2016, for example, nearly 27.3 million Latinos are eligible to vote, of which nearly half are Hispanic millenials. According to the Pew Hispanic, youth is a bigger defining characteristic of Hispanic eligible voters than for any other group, as 800,000 Latinos turn 18 every single year.

Given those numbers, the Clinton and Trump campaigns are paying close attention.

After the Republican and the Democratic conventions, the Clinton and Trump campaigns have tapped into the Hispanic vote by relying on social media.

The Clinton campaign created a Spanish-only Twitter account and the GOP hired Helen Aguirre Ferré to lead the party’s Hispanic outreach through YouTube.

Although millions of Latinos are eligible to vote, voter turnout among them can run as low as 20 percentage points lower than that of African-Americans and non-Hispanic whites, according to the New York Times Magazine’s September 14 edition. The same publication mentions that Latino voters “lag all registered voters on several measures of engagement.”

Understanding the needs of Hispanics will be pivotal to clinching the presidency for both Clinton and Trump, so Hispanics are paying close attention if they are flip flopping or faking interest in Hispanic issues and culture for self-serving purposes. This is also known as “Hispandering,” an attempt to grab votes and dollars without recognizing or respecting Hispanics’ political views.

This election is particularly important for Latinos, since the focus on the Republican side has been to build a wall at the U.S. Mexico border while massively deporting millions of undocumented immigrants of Latino origin. However, several questions loom large: Despite efforts to reach Latino voters, how much clout do Latino voters really have given their low participation in the polls? Are they fully conscious of other issues that potentially harm them? Are there any efforts to convince Latinos to register? Answering these questions will help Latinos shape a judgment on whether Clinton or Trump is just pandering to their vote.

WAR ON DRUGS: THE BIG ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM

For years, the economy, education, and health care are issues that have concerned Latinos, in addition to immigration. But an issue that has fallen under the radar in this election among Latinos is the war on drugs. The most recent survey by the Pew Research Center on this subject, in 2013, showed that 51 percent of U.S. Latinos support legalizing marijuana. In fact, Latinos may have been the driving force in the legalization of marijuana in Colorado three years ago. According to NPR, seven in 10 Floridians favored legalizing medical marijuana at the time.

A 2016 survey by the Pew Hispanic paints a different picture. Latino registered voters consider the economy, health care, terrorism, immigration and education as the top five issues to their vote in 2016. Setting health care, immigration and terrorism aside, other issues of importance for this community can be related to drug policy and its consequences: Seventy-four percent of Latinos are worried about the treatment of racial and ethnic minorities, followed by gun policy with 69 percent. However, the issue of drug policy alone does not appear in the poll.

It does not mean that drug policy is absent from this election’s rhetoric. In fact, both the Clinton and Trump campaigns’ stance against the war on drugs is mixed. Clinton proposes criminal justice reform that “prioritize[s] rehabilitation and treatment over prison for low-level and nonviolent drug offenses and work to end the era of mass incarceration.” In addition, she calls for a $10 billion “initiative to combat America’s deadly epidemic of drug and alcohol addiction.” Clinton expressed support for states that are adopting marijuana policies –especially for medicinal purposes — and added that federal government must not intervene.

Trump’s solution to stem illicit trade is to build a wall across the US-Mexico border,

In his visit to Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto on August 31, Trump discussed further bilateral cooperation to stem illicit trade and guns at the border. Despite the friendly encounter between Peña Nieto and Trump, the latter still maintains a controversial approach to drug trade and US Mexico relations.

In the end, Trump forgets one thing about his controversial plan: No matter how much he spends to build it, a wall won’t stop the network of tunnels that are running underground. A recent report by the New York Times shows that while Trump hammers on the cross-border wall as a central element of his campaign, the existing fence that stretches along the US-Mexico border “has done little to deter enterprising drug smugglers. It has simply helped push them underground.”

In addition to black communities, Hispanics are prone to be targeted by drug enforcement, which also begets racial profiling and mass deportation. For some, the phrase “drug policy” is anathema for the two leading campaigns, and that can be troublesome for Latinos.

“So far, the words ‘war against the drug barons’ have not been mentioned during the presidential debates,” says Elizabeth Rivera, a Mexican journalist for Global Voices Online, who has covered the effect of US policies south of the border and is also an eligible U.S. voter. “We must take into consideration that the war is happening at the border and the number of casualties even surpass those of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars taken together. The fact that this is not a topic of discussion is disturbing.”

The death toll caused by the war on drugs in Mexico — more than 160,000 since 2006 — is just the tip of the iceberg. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, a nonpartisan organization whose goal is to end the war on drugs, reported that more than 40,000 people are deported from the US for drug violations every year. They criticize the DEA, the “institutional rottenness of the agency itself, its long history of trampling upon the sovereignty of other countries, especially in Latin America.”

This election also concerns Latinos south of the border. Lourdes Ramirez, a Honduras-based journalist from JBN Radio, says that not all socioeconomic problems that afflict Central America should be blamed on US drug policies in the region.

The only change she could hope for comes from Democratic vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine’s interest in Honduras: “Kaine has an interest to help in social development in this country,” she says.

In Mexico, Rivera is also not hopeful for change.

“Honestly, I don’t expect much,” she says. “In the case of Clinton, it will maintain Obama’s policies. That is, keep a friendly bilateral relationship and the US-backed aid programs.” She added that a Trump administration would damage US-Mexico relations. “At least they’ll become too tense,” Rivera said.

Both Ramirez and Rivera agree that a Trump or a Clinton administration cannot afford to turn a blind eye to the war on drugs because it is the main cause for regional instability. “Though Europe, Russia and Syria may be top priorities for US foreign policy, it’s in the US interest to maintain a peaceful border that could also pave the way for socioeconomic development [in Central America] while demanding that local institutions be democratic and transparent,” says Ramirez.

One would wonder why “drug policy” is barely discussed among U.S. Latinos per the Pew poll, and the answer could be that, for some, the discussion of drug legalization remains taboo. But as NPR once pointed out, “it’s not that Latinos no longer embrace certain traditional values…but they’re bucking certain stereotypes that have been thrust on them for as long as Latin Americans have migrated to the US.”

Avoiding this issue will not make the problem go away.

WHAT LIES AHEAD FOR LATINOS

Despite the grim numbers that show low voter turnout , not all hope is lost. Hispanics, as they are called in the US Census, are increasingly seeking citizenship. Naturalization applications went up by 10 percent last year, and 48 percent of Latinos seems more enthusiastic about voting this year than they were in 2012 according to Fusion TV, all thanks to Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric that have sparked motivation to prevent him from winning. The same source indicates that 8 out of every 10 Latinos have an unfavorable view of the GOP candidate. Organizations such as Voto Latino are doing the best they can to mobilize Latinos and encourage mass participation come November.

The importance of registering is alive and well on social media. In fact, the hashtag #DilesQueVoten (“Tell them to vote”) is trending on Twitter.

Both leading candidates may have different ways to approach the community –be them by having a VP running mate who speaks fluent Spanish, or a Twitter account in Spanish, or taking pictures eating Tex-Mex food that looks “Mexican”. In the meantime, 27 million Latinos will have to prove that they’re no longer a sleeping giant and can be involved in politics while fully understanding the woes that ail their community. Therefore, Latinos will know whether the candidates are just pandering to them or not.