HUNTINGTON PARK, Calif. — Jonathan Flores spent a sunny Saturday in late October knocking on the doors of registered voters in this predominantly Latino working-class town in southeastern Los Angeles County. Most people weren’t home or didn’t come to the door. Some of those who did expressed strong opinions about Joe Biden and Donald Trump and took an interest in abortion rights and clean-air initiatives on the California ballot for the Nov. 8 election. One young man gave Flores the brush-off, saying he doubted his vote would be counted.
Like the other canvassers sent out that day by AltaMed Health Services Corp., a large chain of community clinics, Flores sported a black baseball cap and a T-shirt emblazoned with “My Vote. My Health.” Underneath, it read the same in Spanish, “Mi Voto. Mi Salud.” His mission was to urge residents to cast their ballots, even if they had never voted, so they could be fairly represented in city hall, Sacramento, and beyond.
“I feel like I’ve seen communities — people who look like me, like my parents — struggle through so much,” said Flores, 31, whose mother and father were born in Mexico and now live in the Central Valley. “So reaching out to them at the core of those issues is basically what got me doing this.”
Health care institutions across the United States have mounted get-out-the-vote efforts in recent years, inspired by a growing belief that voting improves the health of individuals and communities. The American Medical Association has endorsed that idea. AltaMed, with an active civic engagement department, has targeted more than a quarter-million registered voters in Los Angeles and Orange counties this election, most of them in Latino communities. It has offered early voting at a dozen clinics and plans to send canvassers out right up until Election Day.
“Our problems are often triggered — or exacerbated — by factors in our daily lives, whether it’s the air we breathe, where we live, the food we eat,” said Aliya Bhatia, executive director of Vot-ER, a nonprofit organization that works with 700 hospitals and clinics around the U.S., including AltaMed, to encourage patients and staff members to vote. “Vot-ER’s work helps patients be part of a process of going upstream to shape those policies that impact our health.”
Getting out the vote can be challenging in Latino communities despite their potential as an electoral force. The Latino population has quadrupled in the last four decades and now constitutes 19% of the U.S. population. In California, Latinos account for over 39% of the population, exceeding the share of non-Hispanic whites and making them the state’s largest ethnic or racial group.
However, voter participation among Latinos continues to trail other groups. Their turnout in the 2020 election was more than 14 percentage points below that of the state’s eligible voter population, according to data from the Center for Inclusive Democracy at the University of Southern California’s Sol Price School of Public Policy.
Researchers and Latino advocacy groups cite various factors that inhibit Latino voting, including feelings of cultural and linguistic marginalization, a mistrust of government, a disproportionately high poverty rate, and a younger-than-average population. Another key factor, they said, is a lack of outreach by political campaigns and other election organizations.
In a recent poll by the Latino Community Foundation, 71% of California Latino residents said they had not been contacted by a political party, campaign, or other organization this year.
“It makes a difference in whether they are actually going to turn out to vote,” said Mindy Romero, director of the Center for Inclusive Democracy.
In neighboring Los Angeles, mayoral candidate Rick Caruso, a billionaire developer, has made a strong effort to court Latinos, which could play a decisive role in his race to lead a city where they account for nearly half the population. After trailing by a double-digit margin early on, Caruso has pulled even with his opponent, U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, according to a recent poll published by the Southern California News Group.
Notably, 43.7% of Latino voters said they would back Caruso, compared with 29.4% for Bass.
“He is meeting us where we are, at our businesses, where we shop, where we eat. He is telling us he sees us and he hears us,” said Nilza Serrano, president of the Avance Democratic Club, a Latino organization in L.A. County that has drawn scrutiny over its endorsement of Caruso. “I think our community is fed up and a little exhausted from not being heard.”
Maria Robles, 28, who was born here to Mexican immigrants, got confused when asked about her party affiliation. “I don’t know. Is it the Democrats?” she asked, speaking through her front screen door. Robles said she voted for Biden in the last election but regrets it now and, if she could do it over, would vote for Trump instead.
Surveys show that health care is a leading concern among Latinos, although it’s eclipsed by worries about inflation and the economy. Latinos are more likely than other residents to be uninsured. Nationally, they have high rates of diabetes and obesity. And their communities have been hit hard by covid-19.
But political campaigns repeatedly fail to link the health care concerns of Latinos to voting, Romero said.
One example is the Inflation Reduction Act, which, among many other things, caps the monthly cost of insulin for Medicare beneficiaries at $35. Democrats wanted the insulin cap to apply to privately insured people as well, but that provision was blocked by Republicans in the Senate, denying the benefit to millions.
“Yet very few Democrats are talking about it on the campaign trail,” said Rodrigo Dominguez-Villegas, director of research at UCLA’s Latino Policy and Politics Institute. “I mean, the ad pretty much writes itself: ‘We tried to pass this for everybody, but Republicans opposed this specific policy that was going to benefit your uncle, your grandma, your father, your cousin.’”
The environment is another significant concern. Residents of Huntington Park and neighboring cities, almost all with overwhelming Latino majorities, have lived for decades with air and soil pollution from the heavy industry nearby and the traffic along Interstate 710, a freeway corridor choked with diesel-powered trucks transporting cargo from the nation’s two busiest ports.
Bryan Martinez, a Huntington Park resident, grew animated when he learned about Proposition 30, a state measure that would impose an additional 1.75% tax on personal incomes above $2 million to subsidize zero-emission vehicle purchases, electric charging stations, and wildfire prevention programs.
“That’s something I’m really interested in,” said Martinez, 32. “It’s staggering how much pollution comes over here with the winds. I have a lot of friends who are asthmatic.”
Californians are also being asked to vote on an initiative, Proposition 1, that would cement the right to an abortion in the state’s constitution — a response to the U.S. Supreme Court decision that overturned Roe v. Wade. Numerous polls show Latinos strongly support abortion rights, including the Latino Community Foundation survey, in which 61% of Latinos in California favored Proposition 1.
Margarita Gallegos, a Huntington Park resident who was born in Mexico and immigrated to the United States nearly 50 years ago, expressed strong support for abortion rights.
“There are people who have been abused and don’t want to have the baby,” Gallegos, 68, said in Spanish. “Women should have the right to choose for themselves and should also be able to take what they need to take so they don’t become pregnant.”
Speaking to Flores and two of his AltaMed colleagues from her front porch, Gallegos said that it was important for people to vote and that she would definitely cast her ballot.