As the presidential candidates make their final sprint, Latinos also are zeroing in on a crucial election day that could define their political might for years to come.
For Latinos in the United States, Tuesday marks the culmination of four years of registering new voters in hopes of harnessing their growing clout and finally shedding the reputation that Latinos are apathetic voters who can be ignored.
In 2008, 50 percent of eligible Latino voters cast ballots, compared with 65 percent of blacks and 66 percent of whites, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
The Latino vote is expected to play a critical role in this year’s election, particularly in battleground states with large concentrations of Latinos. The latest impreMedia & Latino Decisions poll suggests that high turnout could deliver President Barack Obama the key states of Nevada, Colorado, Virginia and Florida.
Latinos essentially have allowed others to determine their interests by not turning out in numbers that are more representative of the community, said Max Sevillia, director of policy and legislative affairs for the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.
“We need change to that reputation,” he said. “We need to commit ourselves to full participation in the Democratic process because with greater participation there is also greater political empowerment. And through greater empowerment, there is greater opportunity to make ones own policy determinations.”
NALEO estimates 12 million Latino voters will visit the polls in this year’s election, including more than three million who will vote in their first presidential race.
Activists are taking nothing for granted.
In Charlotte, N.C., more than a dozen volunteers, including high school students and undocumented immigrants, on Sunday reached out to more than 1,000 Latinos across North Carolina.
In California, Florida, Texas, Georgia, and six other states, phone banks manned by more than 150 bilingual volunteers and lawyers will answer calls Tuesday from confused Latinos and counsel them on their rights, find their polling place and possibly set up rides.
The economy, immigration, health care and education top the list of most important issues for Latinos.
Ellie Klerlein, who is training volunteers at the hotline location at National Council of La Raza headquarters in Washington, D.C., said Latinos must make it to the polls if they want to enact change in their favor.
She warns politicians about the repercussions of ignoring the population; nearly 900,000 Latinos turn 18 each year.
Enthusiasm among Latinos does appear to be rising, according to the impreMedia-Latino Decisions. Forty-five percent of Latino voters say they are more enthusiastic about voting in 2012 compared with 2008. That’s an increase from 37 percent this summer when polling began.