The Door-To-Door Grind to Lift Latino Voter Turnout

LAS VEGAS -- In her quest to boost the population of Latino voters, Arely Chaparro has ventured down seedy crime-plagued streets with a taser in her satchel, withstood doors slamming in her face and even encountered open drug use.

"I worked those apartments last election," Chaparro gestures as she walks a neighborhood about 10 miles east of the Las Vegas strip that abuts an interstate highway. "It was really bad. There were people shooting heroin outside like it was normal."

On this sun-baked afternoon just two days ahead of the start of Nevada's early voting season, the recurring barrier to reaching her prospects is the chain-linked fence -- usually affixed with a 'Beware of Dog' sign -- which is a common amenity in this racially-mixed enclave of lower-income residences.

"I usually don't go into gates, because most of the time they have dogs," she says. "I was chased by a dog the other day."

The 25-year-old Chaparro is working the doors as a part-time employee for Mi Familia Vota, one of myriad organizations dedicated to motivating Hispanic voters to exercise their right to vote this election year.

What makes Vota different than other groups -- and both presidential campaigns -- is that as a tax-exempt "civic engagement organization," it is a fiercely nonpartisan entity operating in an emotionally-wrenching political environment with a Republican nominee whose central campaign promise is to erect an impenetrable wall on the Mexican border and forcibly remove an unspecified number of undocumented immigrants.

Nonetheless, their field workers do not inquire about who their targets are inclined to vote for. They do not recommend or instruct them how to vote. Their goal remains singularly focused: To simply increase the number of Hispanics that vote.

"Campaigns tend to target high propensity Latino voters, or high propensity voters. That is not our job," says Ben Monterroso, Vota's executive director. "Our job is to target low propensity Latino voters because that is how we grow the electorate. The same people continue voting, we gonna get the same results."

Mi Familia Vota originated in California following the 1994 passage of Proposition 187, an initiative aimed to deny undocumented workers public benefits. It now operates around-the-year in six states and 14 cities.

"People like to say, California changed," Monterroso says. "No, no, no. We changed California."

Chaparro, who came to the U.S. illegally from Mexico with her family but was granted legal status through President Ronald Reagan's 1986 amnesty law, is one of 70 current staffers Vota has in the Las Vegas area attempting to prod and nudge more Latinos to the ballot box.

As she moves from house to house, she says she is noticing a greater number of Hispanics who are not only interested in the election, but have changed their party registration to independent.

"I think this election it's going to be more. It's obvious, ya know?," she says of the expected Latino turnout. But she is reticent about ascribing the cause.

"I don't want to get into the parties but . . . when he first started attacking people," she explains before drifting off without ever completing her thought or mentioning Donald Trump's name.

Her instincts appear to bear out in the statistics. While both active Democratic and Republican Party registration has fallen slightly in the Silver State from 2012, the number of eligible independent or nonpartisan voters has risen 3 percentage points.

Overall, Nevada's total voter registration is up 16 percent from 2012 and Vota can take credit for 16,000 new Hispanic registrants since the beginning of the year. Four years ago, Hispanics made up 18 percent of the vote in Nevada, tying with Arizona for the nation's second largest Latino vote share behind New Mexico.

This year, Vota wants to see Latinos comprise a quarter of Nevada's vote, helping lift their national slice of the electorate to at least 13 percent, which would amount to about 13 million Hispanics.

National polling shows Hillary Clinton leading Trump among Hispanics by a yawning margin of more than 3-to-1 and Monterroso puts it plainly, "We don't ask, but people offer the reason they are registering is because they want to vote against Donald Trump."

While they are cautiously confident about reaching their numerical objectives, the task remains an hour-by-hour grind with considerable obstacles.

On this particular day, Chaparro is about to move on from one of the home's with a gate and seemingly friendly dog roaming the front yard when Luis Urbina pulls up along the curb after finishing a shift at one of his three part-time jobs.

The 28-year-old Urbina was originally registered to vote by Mi Familia Vota and now Chaparro is back to make sure he follows through.

"Are you going to be voting?," she asks.

"Ahhhh. Like right now?," he replies.

No, she tells him, explaining that the early voting period commences during the coming weekend. She references a flier that promotes a festival inside a mall -- "Celebrando El Voto" -- that will include live music, games for children, food from Tacos El Gordo and of course, early voting ballots.

"Well, I don't know, it's kind of hard to decide. Because I want a good country, ya know? United States is the best place to live, ya know, but there's a lot of people that we don't trust. It's fine, I'll vote but I don't even know who's the best of the best," Urbina says skeptically about the candidates.

"The important thing is that you go out and vote," Chaparro instructs affably but firmly.

"Yeah, of course, I know," he replies. "The tacos are going to be free? . . . There going be a trampoline thing and all that stuff?"

"They're going to have a costume contest for kids," Chaparro says, with a lift in her voice.

After handing him the flier that blares "Vote Temprano Todo el Dia! Sabado, 22 de Octubre", which translates to "Vote Early All Day, Saturday, October 22," Chaparro walks away feeling hopeful about Urbino.

Others responses are less heartening.

At one door, two young newly registered women answer.

But when Chaparro asks if they are planning to vote, only one responds affirmatively. The other shakes her head "No" and struggles to reply to a query about the issues most important to her.

"She's not interested. She's not keeping up," Chaparro says later.

On the wall back at Vota's headquarters, a sign notes the daily pledge card goal for each canvasser is a meager five voters per day.

There are a manifold of reasons fewer than half of the 27 million eligible Hispanics turn out to vote. Some of them, like apathy, are not dissimilar to the rest of the general population that sits out elections.

But Chaparro explains that convincing Latinos to register in the first place is always the more challenging hurdle because many fear unintended consequences: That the form will trigger a warrant for a petty offense like an unpaid parking or speeding ticket, or somehow alert authorities to a family member or friend who is an undocumented worker.

It's Chaparro's job to ease those unfounded but understandable worries, to explain why participation in the process is so vital to their families' future and to leverage the power of personal persuasion in each interaction.

"When you convince someone to vote, that's just like an accomplishment, you know? You feel good about yourself," she says, heading to another door with a mini-Ipad in one hand and an iced Starbucks drink in the other. "You're making a change. One by one, it's going to be a big change."

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