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The Washington Post

DC Area Voter Drive Finds Few Eligible Latinos

Volunteers Discover Many Hispanics Lack U.S. Citizenship

By Perry Bacon Jr.

June 16, 2002
Copyright © 2002 The Washington Post Company. All rights reserved.

Ted Loza spoke to at least 40 passersby during one hour of a voter registration drive in Adams Morgan yesterday.

He registered one person.

It wasn't that Loza was unpersuasive. But most people he talked to couldn't vote for an important reason: They are not U.S. citizens.

"It's like digging in a haystack," said Marco Esparza, another volunteer trying to register voters.

A group of Latino agencies set out to register voters yesterday across the Washington metropolitan area. Volunteers from 20 agencies put up tables in neighborhoods with high populations of Latinos in four locations in Maryland, six in Virginia, and Adams Morgan and Mount Pleasant in the District.

But the effort yielded few new voters.

At the Falls Church office of the Hispanic Committee of Virginia, only two people came all afternoon, and volunteers who were prepared to register voters closed up shop more than an hour ahead of schedule. At the Arlington Mills Community Center, after waiting in vain for two hours for someone to register, volunteers walked across the street to a shopping center looking for potential registrants. Few came to the table in front of a Safeway in Mount Pleasant.

Nearly everyone volunteers approached was not a U.S. citizen, though some said they were in the process of obtaining citizenship. Organizers in Maryland faced similar obstacles and reported registering about 40 people at their four locations.

Registering Latino voters has become important, organizers said, because the Washington area has a large Latino population that does not participate in politics.

"We want Latinos represented not only in numbers but in votes," said Loza, who advises D.C. council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) on Latino affairs. "We want to be an integral part in this society."

The city's Latino population has gone up by 37 percent in the last decade, with census estimates showing 45,000 Latinos in the city, about 8 percent of its population. Latinos make up more than 4 percent of Maryland's population and almost 5 percent of Virginia's, according to census figures.

But Loza said that Latinos rarely express political power. While national estimates say that one in 10 votes, the numbers in the Washington area appear to be lower.

For example, Loza said that Ward 1 has about 19,000 Latino residents. But a look at the registration rolls for Democrats showed that only 1,100 people with Hispanic-sounding surnames were registered to vote in the ward, Loza said. Loza did not have statistics for Republican registrants.

Loza said that one major factor may be the immigrants' backgrounds. Many of the District's Latino residents come from El Salvador, which was ravaged by civil war for many years, and other places where they were not encouraged or did not get into the habit of voting. Another factor may be a lack of confidence in the value of voting.

One of the few who registered yesterday, Carolee Montanez, of Northwest Washington, rode her bicycle to the table in Adams Morgan near Champlain Street and Columbia Road NW. She had heard about the registration effort from an e-mail at her firm, which does marketing to Latinos.

"I'm interested in Hispanics becoming more politically active," she said, "so I figured the first thing I should do was get registered."

Montanez has a key advantage, volunteers say: She was born in Puerto Rico, which means she already is a citizen.

If there was little interest in registering, however, many people showed up seeking information on how to become citizens. In Arlington, a separate room where volunteers were explaining the legal requirements of citizenship drew lines out the door. In Falls Church, several people who were at the Hispanic Committee office attending computer classes ducked into the voter registration room to get information on a similar event planned for June 29, when immigration lawyers will be on hand to answer questions.

"When I was young and single, I didn't care," said Jose Hernan Cortez, 41, a construction worker from El Salvador who has been in the United States since 1980 and obtained legal residency 14 years ago. He has been married 10 years and has two daughters.

"Now, it's important to be a citizen," he said. "I have to do what's best for my family. I have to save money. And I want to vote."

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