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Rebuilding Democracy,

One Voter at Time

By Clarissa Martinez

Momentum Magazine (August 2012)


As November nears, the direction of the ever-growing money tide at play in the election reminds us that voter registration does not play a starring role in the electoral landscape. In the last presidential election, admittedly one where registration played a larger role, three of every ten citizens of voting age were not registered to vote. Among Latino voting-age citizens, two in five were not registered. Notably, Latinos represent the fastest growing segment of our electorate, but given population growth and other factors, their registration gap is also growing.   This makes voter registration a critical factor for America's Hispanic community, as well as for a system of democracy that accurately reflects the nation.


However, the most considerably resourced outreach in our elections is not focused on electoral expansion. Resources are largely connected to traditional political campaigns-candidate, party or partisan efforts-which broadly speaking are focused on winning 50%+1 of the electorate, with much of the focus being on getting habitual voters out to the polls, particularly in districts within battleground states. As such, these campaigns tend to not target Hispanic voters extensively (many of whom are new voters or building a voter history), nor are they designed to close the gap between the number of eligible voters and those who are registered and voting. After all, adding more voters to the rolls would increase the number of people campaigns have to contact and persuade to vote for their candidates.

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Thus, much of the energy behind voter registration activity has been left to less well-resourced efforts. And such a concerted, energetic push is now even more important to put voters back in the driver's seat, since participation gaps will be exacerbated by the displacement resulting from the economic and foreclosure crises and state laws that make it more difficult for eligible Americans to register and vote-factors that will have an impact beyond this election.

Given limited resources and the size and composition of the registration gap-in 2010, 73.5 million Americans of voting age were not registered to vote, 10.3 million of them Latino-there must be a multifaceted approach to engage potential voters. A single model is unlikely to work everywhere or for everyone.


Therefore, approaches that advance what works while testing alternatives and innovation to improve effectiveness, reduce costs, reach underrepresented communities, and increase access and opportunity to register, are paramount.

As part of its work to strengthen the nonpartisan foundation for greater Latino participation in the political process, NCLR (the National Council of La Raza), the largest national Latino civil rights and advocacy organization in the country, is implementing canvassing, digital and service-provider electoral programs.


The longest-standing of these programs, the Latino Advocacy and Empowerment Project (LEAP), began in 2002. (For a detailed look at the LEAP program, its trajectory, outcomes and findings, see LEAP: A Model for Increasing Latino Civic Participation.) Through its work with its national network of affiliates, NCLR started working with community-based organizations, mostly service providers, to identify effective ways to incorporate electoral participation into their operations. In 2010, the program worked with 22 partners who registered 19,391 voters. The potential to register and engage new voters through direct-service providers and community organizations normally outside the electoral realm is much greater.


Community partners can contribute their cultural competency, access to hard-to-reach-communities, credibility, established operational footprint and long-term presence to the task of engaging potential voters. As opposed to stand-alone electoral campaigns that need to find prospective voters, community members come through these organizations' doors. And while these organizations may not be able to produce the high-intensity drives that are the focus of cyclical campaign activities, they are able to produce small but steady outcomes which can also help build a platform to advance other activities and efforts.


By its very nature, this approach is intensive on technical assistance. Participating groups are not focused on electoral participation, and many started work in that area through LEAP. They include community health clinics, home counseling centers, workforce development agencies, and education programs, among others. Each organization receives training and tailored assistance to determine realistic goals based on assessment of their existing programs and constituents, aiming to integrate activities rather than create a stand-alone, separate civic-engagement program. This also means that participating organizations leverage their operational footprint by contributing staff time and resources in addition to the support received through the program. LEAP provides access to tools and data support; guidance and legal expertise on nonpartisan activities; integration strategies; funding support; as well as a dedicated staff partner.


In realizing that potential, it is important to recognize the challenges. The integration process is slow and results are rarely immediate. Staff and program continuity are factors so support for multi-year funding training for multiple staff are essential. To tackle those challenges, LEAP builds on the on-the-ground expertise of local partners combined with tailored technical assistance support from NCLR staff. The focus of technical assistance is on 1) organizational buy-in techniques and staffing structure, 2) access to legal expertise and information about permissible 501(c)(3) activities, 3) individualized campaign planning and goal setting, 4) technical knowledge and access to tools, including voter tracking mechanisms and volunteer recruitment and management, and 5) ongoing funding.


This community-grounded approach offers great potential for nurturing a broader view of civic engagement (one that goes beyond elections), and of community wellbeing (one that includes active civic life).   As organizations gain experience in incorporating these voter engagement activities, some have used the same platforms to build citizenship-assistance activities and advocacy or other efforts. Those results are promising because electoral participation is crucial, but alone is not enough. To achieve accountability participation has to be sustained and multi-faceted. This cross-pollination helps create a participation continuum -linking immigrants to citizenship, citizens to voting, and the community at large to leadership development and civic action-that by strengthening civil society can lead to transformational policy change. And seeing themselves as part of that change, even if sometimes slow, is what gives people a reason to get and stay involved.


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Clarissa Mart�nez-De-Castro, Director of Civic Engagement and Immigration at the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), oversees the organization's work to advance fair and effective immigration policies and efforts to expand Latino policy advocacy and electoral participation. She previously managed NCLR's state-based advocacy work in California and Texas, and launched NCLR's civic engagement service-provider program.


She has been a frequent commentator on the Latino electorate and on immigration issues on CNN, MSNBC, FOX, Univision, and Telemundo, among others, and has appeared in The Washington Post, New York Times, La Opinion, and other major news outlets.


In 2007, Ms. Martinez-De-Castro served as manager of the Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, a multi-sector network of national, state, and local organizations committed to advancing policy solutions on immigration. Prior to NCLR, she served as Public Policy Coordinator for the Southwest Voter Research Institute, Assistant Director of the California-Mexico Project at the University of Southern California, Organizer for the Ladies' Garment Workers Union, and Union Representative for the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union (HERE) Local 11. A Salzburg Seminar Fellow, she received her undergraduate degree from Occidental College and her master's degree from Harvard University. A naturalized U.S. citizen, she was born and raised in Mexico.