Ruby Mendez: “If our legislators and state representatives don’t know what our concerns are, then we’re doing a disservice to others and to ourselves. We cannot make change if we don’t express our vote.”
Ruby Mendez has been politically inclined for as long as she can remember.
Growing up in Boise, she remembers watching marches, protests and rallies on Spanish-language TV networks with a sort of reverence. As a child, she learned about the importance of voting from her grandfather, who still works as a poll watcher in Mexico.
Even so, when representatives of Idaho Latino Vote spoke in Mendez's classroom during her freshman year at the College of Western Idaho, she recalls being nervous and wondering if she should tell them she wasn't registered to vote.
"It was all just so new to me," she said.
Mendez decided to tell them the truth and discovered a passion for political engagement. Throughout college, she volunteered her time helping others register to vote and has spent the past three years conducting Latino voter outreach with the Idaho Community Action Network, a nonprofit social justice organization.
Mendez has lost count of the days she's spent at cultural festivals, citizenship ceremonies or—clipboard in hand—standing on sidewalks registering voters. She's armed with a wide smile and a bilingual message: "Your Vote Counts. Su Voto Cuenta."
"If our legislators and state representatives don't know what our concerns are, then we're doing a disservice to others and to ourselves," said Mendez. "We cannot make change if we don't express our vote."
There are approximately 80,000 eligible Latino voters in Idaho, but turnout has been historically low. National statistics say only 48 percent of Latinos voted in the last presidential election.
"There's a huge power gap when it comes to voting in Idaho," explains Terri Sterling, executive director of ICAN. "There are many more eligible Latinos than actually register."
In the U.S., a record 27.3 million Latinos are eligible to vote this year, and there's speculation that both harsh anti-immigration rhetoric by GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump and voter registration campaigns by groups like Spanish media conglomerate Univision Communications might prompt a higher-than-typical Latino voter turnout in 2016. In Idaho, nonpartisan groups like ICAN and the Community Council of Idaho are working to help Latinos register and show up at the polls, but some political scientists and community leaders say it can be difficult to encourage Latinos to vote if they don't feel their concerns are being taken up at the statehouse.
"I don't see the Latino community being motivated to come out until there are issues [and] candidates that are really going to get them interested in politics and make a difference in their lives," said Dr. Jasper LiCalzi, chair of the College of Idaho Department of Political Economy.
But Humberto Fuentes, president of the Hispanic Cultural Center in Nampa, said there is a particularly high interest in this year's presidential election. He said citizenship classes are more popular than ever, which he chalks up to people wanting to vote. Fuentes knows a number of Latinos are motivated by the possibility of Trump in the White House, but it's in local elections he thinks Latinos need more encouragement to vote.
"We don't have a lot of role models at the state level," Fuentes said. "A lot of folks have given up. That is very bad for us."
Fuentes points to the recent election in Wilder, where the Canyon County community voted in its first all-Latino city council. He sees this as evidence of what can happen when Latinos show up at the polls in substantial numbers. He said he's particularly hopeful Latino children will be politically active when they're old enough to vote—according to the most recent census, there are 75,000 Latinos in Idaho under the age of 18, nearly as many as there are eligible voters.
"We keep going forward," Fuentes said.
Maria Mabbutt, a candidate for the Idaho House of Representatives in District 12 A, who is challenging incumbent Rep. Robert Anderst (R-Nampa), said she thinks it is "quite tragic" Latinos are 12 percent of Idaho's population yet hold only a few seats in the Legislature—two lawmakers, Sen. Michelle Stennett (D-Ketchum) and Sen. Roy Lacey (D-Pocatello) claim Hispanic heritage, according to Mabbutt.
Having worked for other campaigns and nonprofits, Mabbutt said "there is a human tendency of apathy" if people feel their voice isn't heard."
Mabbutt also believes the most important thing for Latino voters is providing whatever assistance they need to cast well-informed votes.
"The numbers show that turnout is not very high in local elections," she said. "It is really sad that a low percentage of voters decide who governs here in Idaho. That's why we must be engaged."
Engagement is one objective of the Community Council of Idaho, a "rural-centered, multi-service" nonprofit serving Latinos. The organization educates its membership about civic commitment and offers incentives for assisting with voter registration, helps with absentee ballot sign ups and provides transportation and translation services for voters.
"It is so essential for our community to understand the power and the strength we have," said CCI Communications Specialist Leticia Ruiz. "There is potential that's there for greatness if we empower ourselves by voting."
On a recent blustery day in September, ICAN Director Terri Sterling and volunteer Kathryn McNary stood outside the Caldwell DMV, inquiring of passersby if they were registered to vote. They selected the location specifically to reach Latinos but offered to register anyone who walked by. They had mixed results.
About half of the people Sterling and McNary spoke to said they were already registered. Some, like Latina millennial Nieves Valdez, said they'd prefer not to register. Valdez said she doesn't like to vote because she never knows much about the candidates. She said she wished there was more bilingual explanation of who was running and even how to vote.
"A lot of us don't know," Valdez said. "I hope it gets better."
In the course of two hours, the ICAN representatives stopped about 40 people. Among them were Rosario Rico, from Caldwell, and her father Saul Rico Gutierrez, who is originally from Mexico.
"A lot of people don't vote because it doesn't help them," said Gutierrez. "If they vote, it doesn't do anything for Latinos."
Still, Gutierrez said he plans to cast a ballot this year.
"It's important to vote," he said. "But later, when [politicians] are in power, they don't do anything. They forget about the people who need them most."
Rico, voting in her second presidential election, was a bit more optimistic.