“What I hear most frequently, is one voice doesn’t count. And so we have to overcome that false notion - one voice does count,” says Father Armand Matthew, OMI, who helped launch the Center for Civic Engagement at the University of Texas at Brownsville (UTB). “What if every person said, ‘I’m one voice, I don’t count’, where do we stand then in the public arena?”
Matthew is describing the dire statistic that only two out of 10 eligible voters mark their ballots in the highly Hispanic Rio Grande Valley. That's one of the lowest rates in the country.
“And voter turnout in local elections, is less than five per cent. That’s just not acceptable by any standards, you know?” says Matthew.
Raquel Benevidez works for the City of Brownsville. During this election she’s helping to tally votes and believes voter apathy is par for the course.
“It’s been that way for quite a while," she says. "People don’t seem to be that much interested, or they’re not in favour of people that are running. Basically, I don’t know the real reason why that happens.”
According to the Washington-based thinktank Pew Hispanic Center, Latino voters are less likely than all registered voters to vote in elections.
Some point to poverty. Brownsville is the lowest median income city in the US, and a low income creates disillusionment.
“There’s an apathy that, I suppose, we could say makes some sense in the poor community, and yet it doesn’t make any sense at all. That’s the road out of poverty - participation in public discourse and action,” says Father Matthew.
Matthew, who is a spry 90-year-old, draws from his experience as a social activist from Panama to Washington DC and all the way up to Chicago.
The Hispanic vote could be gathering momentum, however. A Pew study showed that Hispanics now account for 11 per cent of the nation’s eligible electorate - and the numbers are growing.
Students at UTB gave various reasons for not voting. “I think it’s because I’m not informed. I do think it’s important to vote,” says Cristina, a 22-year-old student.
“Ï am registered to vote but am not sure if I’m going to vote. Just don’t really have the time right now. I know it doesn’t take that long, but, kinda iffy,” says Rene.
“I’m not registered to vote because my parents really don’t want me to vote because they say it’s against my religion. I’m a Jehovah Witness and we’re not allowed. We’re only supposed to vote for Jesus,” says Diogenes, an 18-year-old student.
Church and family have a lot to do with voter apathy, especially in the Latino culture, says John Cook, Associate Communications Professor and Communications Department Chair at UTB.
“The Hispanic culture is more of a collective culture and so they cling to the inner circle of friends and family a lot. In fact, one of the challenges our students face is that they don’t want to leave where their parents live to go get a job,” he says.
Rico, a student and a registered voter, is not voting this year because he says he is impressed by neither Obama nor Romney. But he agrees that voting is not part of his culture, as a Latino, because it was not a big issue in his family. “Nobody stopped talking at the table and decided to discuss that.”
Within the Hispanic community, the issue of immigration, especially in Brownsville, a border town, is high on the list of concerns, along with education, and jobs and the economy. That’s not the case for Rico’s family.
“None of the issues really affect them, I guess,” he adds. “You know, they’re not really big on education, they’re not really big, you know, on the economy, they have their jobs, they’ll find work. It’s not something like the issues are going to affect them. Or, so it seems to them.”
Cook is part of a faculty-staff-student committee called 100 per cent Vote, which aims to get people to register and vote, no matter what their party affiliation.
“We’re trying awfully hard, and we’re seeing some measure of success, especially in the national elections,” he says. It is an intense attempt to get students involved through concerts, free food, hosting candidate forums, involving student clubs and handing out election pamphlets.
“We are doing so much to try and stimulate an interest and a sense of responsibility about voting,” says Cook.
The 100 per cent Vote group has picked up the pace this year in order to get people involved from the primaries to the runoffs to the general elections. UTB has an early voting booth where students, staff and even local residents not affiliated with the campus can come in to vote.
It’s an uphill battle, especially when looking at the demographic of students at UTB. Cook says the average student is a 26-year-old single mother. They have to deal with feeding their child, not voting.
“They have lives they are trying to manage,” he says.
Father Matthew works on the 100 per cent Vote committee as well as another initiative that works on long term results. Kids Voting USA is a national program implemented by schools throughout the country to teach children about their civic responsibility. Matthew was key in pushing this in Brownsville, not only in public schools, but in private schools and home-schooled children in the area.
Although you must be 18 to vote in the US, children learn about voting and what impact their vote can have on their community. They even hold their own ‘vote’ at school.
“There are studies that show that it does increase voter turnout,” says Matthew, especially when the students come home and ask if their parents voted. “It does have some effect.”
According to the Pew Hispanic Center, one out of five schoolchildren in the US are Hispanic.
“We have realistic hope that through the years - it won’t happen tomorrow - but through the years a youngster, for example, goes through 13 years of that instruction and experience. He or she is going to leave high school with what it takes to be a responsible citizen,” he says.
Matthew was recently in the state capital, Austin, observing a legislative open session. During a break in the meeting, one legislator from Houston overheard that Matthew was from Brownsville. "We don’t have to pay attention to you people, you don’t vote!" he told Matthew.
“Our voice, our influence, our impact, our desires, our needs do not get a fair hearing in Austin because our people don’t vote. So if we can get this kids' voting programme to result in a larger number of voters in Brownsville, and in the whole [Rio Grande] valley, we will have our voice in Austin.”