'I can have a voice': Latino voters set for decisive role in key Arizona county

Maanvi Singh and Lauren Gambino in Phoenix
·10-min read

Even before she could vote, Imelda Quiroz Beltran had a goal for this election: to register as many Latino voters in Maricopa county as possible – and make sure they cast their ballots.

Every day for months, she has gone door to door with the non-profit Mi Familia Vota, undeterred by the searing desert sun – zipping across Phoenix’s sprawling concrete-paved neighborhoods in search of eligible voters.

Related: The Arizona county that could decide the future of Trump – and America

And then the day came when Beltran registered herself – after she became a naturalized citizen this year.

“Finally, I can have a voice,” she said. “And this year, it is so important that we all have a voice.”

Maricopa – which includes Phoenix – is the fastest-growing county in the US. Of its nearly 4.5 million residents, one-third identify as Latino, according to census data.

While Arizona has voted for the Republican presidential nominee in every election but one since 1952, this year, political strategists and pollsters are predicting that Latino voters in Maricopa could play a decisive role in electing Joe Biden to the White House and Democrats up and down the ballot.

“Whoever wins the Latino vote, is going to win Maricopa county. And whoever wins Maricopa county is going to win Arizona,” said Joseph Garcia, director of Chicanos Por La Causa Action Fund, a non-profit based in Phoenix. “And whoever wins Arizona is likely to win the White House.”

‘A wake-up call’

With early voting already well under way, Biden is leading among registered Latino voters in Arizona by a staggering 38 points.

This year, Democrats find themselves with a real chance of taking control of the US Senate. In Arizona’s Senate race, Democrat Mark Kelly – a former astronaut – is leading the incumbent Republican Martha McSally by five or six points among registered voters, and by more than 25 points among Latinos.

The forces that have made Maricopa county and Arizona such a hotly contested election battleground this year were set in motion more than a decade ago, by a generation of young, progressive Latino activists who mobilized against the hardline immigration policies and Joe Arpaio, the rightwing Maricopa county sheriff who became known as “the Donald Trump of Arizona”.

But in the last four years, Trump’s chaotic, divisive tenure has accelerated the electorate’s leftward shift. And in recent months, anger over the Republican governor Doug Ducey’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which has disproportionately devastated the state’s Latino communities, has further alienated voters from the right.

Though Mi Familia Vota’s canvassers help both Republicans and Democrats register to vote, Beltran says she often meets people canvassing who – like her – feel betrayed by the current administration. Trump enraged Beltran from the moment he launched his campaign in 2016, when he characterized Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists. Those comments, she said, “made me want to move and do something”.

Beltran believes the president has emboldened racists. “I’ve lived here 30 years,” she said. “I speak English.” But in the past four years – she said she has heard more white strangers than ever before tell her to “go back” to where she came from.

Beltran is determined to register as many Latino voters in Maricopa County, Arizona as possible and make sure they cast their ballots in next week’s elections. Photographs: Caitlin O’Hara/The Guardian

The election in 2016, “really, I think activated people – it was a wake-up call for many,” said Athena Salman, who was elected to the state house the same year Trump was elected to the White House. “But I tell people, especially those who weren’t involved or civically engaged up until Trump was elected – we had our own Donald Trump,” she said.

That would be Arpaio, the Maricopa sheriff knownfor his anti-immigration policies and reality-TV antics, who joined forces with Trump to investigate the racist conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was not born in the US.

Arpaio was buoyed by local and state officials – who in 2010 passed SB 1070, known here as the “show me your papers” law that allowed police to detain anyone they suspected of being in the US illegally, which activists and civil rights lawyers argued opened the door to racial profiling against Latinos and other immigrants.

The law initially energized conservatives, who rewarded hard-right populists. But it also activated a generation of young Latinos and progressives – including Salman, who was a college student at the time.

Though activists ultimately failed to stop the bill from being signed into law, they were undeterred.

“We kept going, we kept pushing,” said Carlos Garcia, a longtime activist who was elected to the Phoenix city council in 2018. “We took to the courts, we hit the streets, we registered people to vote. We tried every tactic. We built power.”

A year later, in 2011, activists led a successful recall against the bill’s author, Russell Pearce, who became the first state lawmaker in Arizona history to be removed from office by voters via a recall election. Through a series of court cases, they successfully dismantled key provisions of his signature legislation. And then in 2016 – the same day Trump claimed the presidency – Maricopa voters ousted Arpaio after nearly a quarter-century in power.

“Every election year, politicians ask – when will the Latino vote show up for us,” said Eduardo Sainz, the Arizona state director for Mi Familia Vota. “But the thing is, we have been showing up – we have been showing up for ourselves.”

In 2018, young Latino voters cast ballots in record numbers, and elected Kyrsten Sinema – the first Democrat to win a US Senate seat in Arizona in decades. Since then, an estimated 100,000 more Latino voters have come of age and have become eligible to vote.

Mi Familia Vota is hoping to mobilize as many of these new voters as possible to cast their ballots, having registered 185,000 voters – young and old – this year.

“The electorate itself definitely looks different than 2016,” said Josh Ulibarri, a Democratic pollster based in Phoenix.

“There are new voters in the mix,” he said. “And those voters tend to be a little more oriented towards Biden, towards Democrats and towards change in general.”

Latinos account for 18% of the US population, and are the country’s second-largest racial or ethnic group, said Josepha Garcia of Chicanos por la Causa, though he stressed that they are “not monolithic”.

And yet, Latino voters – especially young, progressive Latino voters like those in Maricopa county – are poised to play a decisive role in swing states across the country, he said. An estimated 1 million Latinos will turn 18 every year for the next two decades in the US, joining a diverse new generation of voters in the US that will transform the country’s political future.

Biden is currently on track to do slightly better than Clinton did with Latino voters and possibly white voters as well

It is still uncertain whether Biden and Democrats can parlay demographic change, a growing progressive movement and disdain for Trump seen in counties like Maricopa into victories in November. Though he has struggled to make gains with Latino voters, there are signs he has improved his standing: Biden is leading among likely Latino voters in Arizona 66% to 28%, according to a recent Monmouth poll. Those numbers are consistent with national trends: Biden holds a 34-point lead over Trump among Latino eligible voters across the country, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center.

What it comes down to is the numbers – and if the numbers turn out at the ballot box,” Garcia said.

In a high-turnout race, the Monmouth poll found Biden with a seven-point lead - but a likely voter model with lower turnout found Biden with just a two-point advantage.

Though there is little chance the president will win over most Latino voters here, siphoning off even a small share of Biden’s support could be consequential in a tight race.

The Trump campaign is specifically targeting Latino men who prioritize jobs and the economy – issues where the president still has an advantage. And Trump – who this week saw his conservative, anti-abortion nominee confirmed to the US supreme court – also appeals to many anti-abortion Latino voters in the area.

At a Latinos for Trump rally in Phoenix, hundreds of supporters packed into a hotel conference room to see the president, Governor Ducey and a panel of Latino business owners. “We are Catholic, we are pro-life. For me, definitely our values of freedom, family and faith are represented in the Republican party,” said Alma Rodriguez, 28, who came with her husband.

US President Donald Trump (L) and others participate in a roundtable rally with Latino supporters at the Arizona Grand Resort and Spa in Phoenix, Arizona on September 14, 2020.
Donald Trump, left, and others participate in a roundtable rally with Latino supporters at the Arizona Grand Resort and Spa in Phoenix, Arizona, on 14 September. Photograph: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

A mother of four, Rodriguez said she was frustrated by Ducey’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, which has hit her husband’s construction business and left her children anxious as their public school struggled to adapt to online learning.

The pandemic has killed more than 225,000 Americans and infected millions, far more than any other country, with deaths and cases surging in the midwest in recent weeks. A majority of Americans do not approve of the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic, which has taken a disproportionate toll on Latinos across the nation, including in Maricopa. But Rodriguez believes Trump was right to “leave it to the governors – he’s not a dictator”.

She said the Latinos for Trump offices in south Phoenix have helped solidify her support for the president. “It really blows my mind that the president has opened up a whole office, just for us,” she said. “I have not received any phone calls from Biden.”

The Biden campaign, which initially avoided in-person events and door-to-door canvassing due to the pandemic, has resumed traditional campaigning in the final few weeks. But progressive organizers worry that these efforts are too little, too late.

Democrats have for too long maintained a transactional relationship with Latino voters, said Gilbert Romero, who was a delegate for Biden’s former rival, Bernie Sanders, at the Democratic national convention earlier this year.

Arizona could have gone blue in the year 2000. Hillary Clinton could have won in 2016

“Arizona could have gone blue in the year 2000. Hillary Clinton could have won in 2016,” he said. But while voters in Maricopa have helped elect a wave of progressive Latinos to local and statewide office, the region has continued to back Republicans in national races. “The voters have always been there – but the fact is, we haven’t had a candidate that actually speaks to us,” Romero said.

For many Latinos, Biden was not the Democrat they wanted to see at the top of the ticket. Although the former vice-president won the primary elections, many of the younger Latino voters backed Sanders.

“But Bernie Sanders ain’t on the ballot,” said Joseph Garcia of Chicanos por la Causa Action Fund. “An unenthusiastic vote for a candidate, counts exactly the same as an enthusiastic vote for the candidate.”

Still, Garcia and activists hope that a historic turnout among Latino voters will send a clear message to both parties.

“If they’re going to use us to win elections,” he said, “They also going to have to listen to us, our concerns.”

On a blazing Friday afternoon in late September, Alejandro Chavez – an organizer with the United Farm Workers and the grandson of the Arizona-born labor leader Cesar Chavez – visited the Mi Familia Vota office in downtown Phoenix, where he appealed to canvassers to make themselves heard.

“Don’t just ring the bell, knock – and knock a little harder,” he told them.

If there’s a fence or a locked door, he said, “shake it – make sure there isn’t a dog first, but shake it hard!”

Why?

“Because nobody else can be trusted to do it.”