Benjamin El-Amin Lake, an 18-year-old from Pineville, remembers the first time he cast his vote last year. That ballot represented more than just a right—it was a tribute to his mother’s journey from Costa Rica to the United States. If not for certain laws, she might never have become an American.
“My entire life here in this country is pretty much enabled by certain policies that were passed to be able to allow my mom to actually be able to get her citizenship,” Lake said. “Among other things my entire life is dependent on those things [laws], and my future is as well.”
Now taking a political science class, Lake follows election updates. But his younger self would hardly recognize him. Back in his early high school days, he saw politics as mere “pointless screaming.” He said many young Latinos, like himself, were distant from the ballot box. To bridge this gap, Lake said that political parties should be more proactive in their outreach efforts. He gave the example of U.S. Rep. Jeff Jackson (D-N.C.) , who reaches young people on platforms like TikTok, explaining political topics like the debt ceiling.
While many young Latinos lean liberal, Lake said he understands why older Latinos might value conservative views on tradition and religion. However, he disagrees with the Republican Party’s approach to immigration. Although he was born in the U.S., the subject of immigration remains close to his heart. Seeing his mom help new immigrants reminds him of his family’s story.
“The Republican Party’s stance on immigration is what I personally see as keeping Latinos away,” he said.
The Latino community in the state is small but growing: According to a state analysis of census data, the Latino community has been the fastest-growing population in the state since the 1990s. In 2022, just under 4% of registered voters self-identified as Latino. As this community expands, its influence on election outcomes may increase, Latino activists say.
“We aren’t the margin of victory right now, but we could be soon,” said Nikki Marín Baena, co-director of Siembra NC, a progressive grassroots organization focused on tenants, workers’ rights and immigration issues.
Understanding Latino voters’ political stance isn’t as simple as labeling them left or right. Latino activists pointed to shifting priorities since the 2022 midterm elections among immigrants, conservative Latinos, those with strong religious beliefs, and the youth vote. Advocates are gearing up to encourage more Latino voters to participate in the coming elections after turnout dropped among this group in 2022. The challenge for get-out-the-vote efforts, activists say, is a lack of trustworthy voter information, stricter voting requirements, and relatively few Latino representatives in politics.
The issue of immigration
In North Carolina, the issues that drive Latino voters to the polls are as varied as their nationalities, Latino activists say.
“You can’t treat Latinos as a monolith,” said Eduardo Andrade, state chairman and national committeeman for the N.C. Republican National Hispanic Assembly.
Get-out-the-vote efforts should focus on the diverse political views within this community, several activists said.
Andrade said that while immigration was the primary concern for Latino voters a few decades ago, their priorities have evolved.
Heading into the 2022 midterm elections, inflation ranked as the top issue for Latino voters, while border security and immigration control were lower priorities, according to a survey of minority voters. Abortion was the second-biggest issue for Hispanic and Latino voters in the wake of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case restricting abortion, a Washington Post-Ipsos poll found.
Andrade said issues such as religion, school choice, and support for small businesses have grown in importance for Latino voters in North Carolina. While immigration remains a significant concern for many, it doesn’t necessarily translate to backing the Democratic Party, Andrade said.
The perception that Republicans don’t like immigrants is false, and the party needs to talk more about supporting legal immigration while securing the borders, he said. Both parties are to blame for problems with the immigration system, he said.
“I know tons of not even Latinos, but legal immigrants from across the world who have been waiting, who have been trying to do the right thing through their visas and continually get befuddled and not let in while illegal immigrants get let in across the border,” Andrade said.
The Republican Latino vote is growing but still not large, said Rodolfo Martínez Barrón, director of advocacy and civic engagement for the Association of Mexicans in North Carolina, or AMEXCAN. He said many Latinos are religious, and the recent Supreme Court case overturning Roe v. Wade reignited the issue of reproductive rights.
According to a 2022 Pew Research Center study, 57% of Hispanics believe abortion should be legal in most or all instances. That’s slightly lower than the 62% of the general U.S. public who feel the same way. The same study also revealed that a majority of Hispanics support establishing a legal path for immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children without proper documentation.
Immigration remains a predominant concern among Latino voters, Martínez Barrón said.
“They’re going to overvalue the immigration campaigns over all of their other beliefs because of the prize of citizenship or a pathway to citizenship,” Martínez Barrón said. This also depends on how close they are to the immigration experience, he said.
Second and third generations are distanced from their immigrant roots and may no longer prioritize them in voting, Marín Baena said.
Someone with Hispanic ancestry is less likely to identify as Latino or Hispanic the further they are from the immigrant experience, such as the U.S.-born children of U.S.-born parents, according to a 2017 Pew Research Center study.
Of the estimated 42.7 million U.S. adults with Hispanic ancestry, most identify as Hispanic or Latino, Pew researchers found. Yet, 5 million, or 11%, do not consider themselves Hispanic or Latino despite their ancestry, according to the study.
Brief history of Latinos in NC
Since the 1990s, North Carolina has seen an increase in its Hispanic population, with roots tracing back to the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act. This growth, which began in the 1970s, especially impacted North Carolina and other Southern states. Today, 66% of Latinos in the state are U.S. citizens, a figure that increases to 94% for the younger generation under 18, according to census data cited by DemocracyNC. While the majority have ties to Mexico, there’s a notable presence of Puerto Ricans (11%) and Salvadorans (6%), according to census data from the 2017 American Community Survey.
Yet, the early 2000s were challenging times for many Latino immigrants. Based on Hannah Gill’s book “The Latino Migration Experience in North Carolina,” there was heightened immigration enforcement. Between 2006 and 2012, eight sheriff’s offices in the state established 287(g) agreements, giving them the power to check arrestees’ immigration statuses and even hold them for potential deportation. By 2017, North Carolina stood out with five such agreements, leading to significant deportations during President Barack Obama’s tenure.
In her book, Gill writes that after Donald Trump’s election as president, there were increased reports of bullying and intimidation against North Carolina Latino students. “Aggressive anti-immigrant policies and the climate of reception that they create have very real circumstances for hundreds of thousands of people across the state. For many new Latino North Carolinians, making the state a home is a struggle for survival, fairness and dignity,” she wrote.
North Carolina is a representation of the larger discussions around migration. The state’s changing population, influenced by immigrants and people moving from other parts of the U.S., is also leading to the growth of Latinos making the state their permanent home, according to Gill.
In 2016, Latino voter turnout increased across the country beyond 2012 levels with the overwhelming majority supporting Democrats and record-low numbers casting their ballots for Trump, who “vilified” Latino immigrants, according to the book “Latinos and the 2016 Election.”
Latino support for Trump rose a bit in the 2020 elections, but the majority voted for Biden amid a global pandemic, according to the Pew Research Center.
In 2020, Latinos were more likely to support Trump if they saw the economy as most important, according to a study in the journal The Forum. Latino support for Trump increased because of his promise to reopen the economy, the journal article stated. But as the economy returns to normal after the pandemic, that support may fall away, according to an analysis by the Brookings Institution.
Marín Baena of Siembra NC said Latinos voting Republican isn’t a “betrayal,” as their political priorities are more complex than just red or blue. She also said Latino voters’ choices may be influenced by their identities and how much they assimilate into American culture.
According to a Pew Research Center study, the percentage of Hispanics voting blue went from 47% in 2018 to 21% in 2020.
Lake said people are going to vote for what they see as benefiting them most. For Latinos who may be business owners or religious, he said that means they may vote red.
Challenges in mobilizing Latino voters
For some North Carolina Latinos, politics in their country of origin have shaped their level of civic participation here.
Alba Sanchez, who manages the Immigrant Welcoming Center of the Charlotte-based Latin American Coalition and is the mother of Lake, said her sense of civic duty took root before she came to this country, as elections are celebrated in her former country of Costa Rica. Without that civic mindset she brought with her, she said her son may not have voted.
“He probably wouldn’t be involved because his mom is not involved,” she said.
Emilia Ismael-Simental, civic and community participation manager of El Centro Hispano, said some youths have parents from countries with little faith in democratic processes. Their children may inherit that sentiment, she said.
Ismael-Simental said misinformation is yet another potential barrier for Latinos, made worse by stricter voting rules, like voter ID requirements. Black and Brown voters are less likely to possess any of the acceptable voting IDs, Carolina Public Press reported.
“If you don’t have reliable sources, or somebody that helps you understand what you need to do, then it just becomes very complicated,” she said.
Aimy Steele, founder and CEO of nonprofit New North Carolina Project, said the tightened voting requirements are worrisome because Black and Brown voters already tend to be more distrustful of the political system than others. Misinformation and voting intimidation tactics can turn people away from the polls, she said.
Spanish-language misinformation often spreads across popular sites used by Latinos like WhatsApp, Betina Cutaia Wilkinson, a political science professor at Wake Forest University, said in an interview last year with Wake Forest News. Many Latinos rely on social media or messages from peers to learn about elections instead of more reliable sources, Wilkinson said in the article.
Spanish-language news media in North Carolina are concentrated in the Triangle and Charlotte areas, leaving out rural areas, said Maria Lopez Gonzalez, deputy director of El Pueblo, a nonprofit Latinx leadership organization based in Raleigh.
A long-standing challenge has been the lack of Latino representation in elected office. The News & Observer reported that only 27 Hispanic candidates ran in the 2022 midterms in over 2,000 races on the ballot statewide.
Lopez Gonzalez said it’s not just about having a Latino elected official; it’s also about representing Latino perspectives in decision-making. When her organization talks to politicians about how an issue will affect the Latino community, she said they often haven’t made that connection.
“It’s like a lightbulb. They’re like, ‘Oh, my God, I didn’t even think about that,’” she said.
Latino voter outreach
Marín Baena of Siembra NC said that there has been limited progress from both parties on critical issues such as immigration and workers’ rights. While the Uvalde, Texas school shooting made school safety a top concern for many Latinos, she added that gun laws were loosened by North Carolina Republicans about a year after the incident.
Marín Baena stressed the significance of consistent engagement, stating that improvements will come from dedicated, year-round efforts to educate people about the system and its potential benefits for them.
“If things are going to get better, it’s going to be because we did a lot of year-round work to have conversations with people so that they understand how the system works and how it could work for them,” she said.
While individual efforts play a critical role, the broader system of voter outreach is also under scrutiny.
Sanchez emphasized the responsibility of voter mobilization groups in increasing turnout. Her son Lake, as a first-time voter last year, expressed disappointment in not being approached by any Latino organizations.
Andrade also brought up the infrequent engagement from the Democrats, suggesting they appear primarily every four years to make promises.
“In my experience, Democrats tend to only come around every four years when they’re ready to say their promises and their handouts, and then they disappear for another four years,” Andrade said. “Republicans have just now started to do the outreach.”
He added that Republicans are now beginning their efforts to connect with the Latino community. In his capacity, he said he reaches out to Republican National Committee chapters statewide to bolster this connection with the Latino community.
Young Latino voters
The Latino vote is younger than other voting blocs. The median age of Latino eligible voters is 39, nine years younger than the median age of all U.S. eligible voters, according to the Pew Research Center.
North Carolina millennials and Generation Z voters have the lowest voter turnout of any generation in the state, CPP reported. Just 14% of Latino voters between ages 18 and 25 voted in 2022, according to The Charlotte Observer.
Martínez Barrón of AMEXCAN, a young Latino who actively registers students from universities and high schools in eastern North Carolina to vote, believes that increased Latino representation in government would inspire more young people to cast their ballots.
“There’s nobody that looks like you or talks like you in high political positions,” he said, emphasizing the lack of representation of certain demographics or backgrounds in prominent political roles.
Ismael-Simental said that getting youths interested in politics means involving them in local issues to spark their interest in politics. “It’s taking them through that process in which they realize they can be leaders and they can advocate, and then they realize that the democratic system is there for that,” she said.
On the other hand, Lopez Gonzalez pointed out that numerous young Latino voters feel disenchanted, perceiving political parties as more combative than constructive. This sentiment, she said, often leads them to question the weight of their vote.
She said immigrant parents often fear letting their children vote because they worry the government might learn about their immigration status.
According to a UNC Chapel Hill demographic analysis, the Hispanic population is smaller in more rural counties but has seen faster growth there over the past 30 years. In Duplin County, 22% of residents are Hispanic. Sampson and Lee both have 21%.
Marín Baena said many young Latinos in rural areas are looking for community, and that can be one avenue into political engagement. Recalling her time as one of the few Latino students in Waynesville, she said the growing community landscape now includes events like a Spanish rodeo at the county fair.
“The face of rural North Carolina in particular is definitely changing,” she said.
Marín Baena also said that Latino political views tend to lean conservative in these areas. Lopez Gonzalez emphasized the challenge of civic engagement in such locales without strong community connections. Fewer Latinos in these North Carolina rural zones are eligible to vote, Ismael-Simental said. For these voters, health care access often takes precedence over urban concerns.
While 2020 saw many Latinos voters prioritizing the economy, that changed in 2022. Similarly, Latino voters in 2024 will likely be motivated by issues beyond the economy, according to a recent commentary by Gabriel Sanchez, a fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Republican-led states that have banned the teaching of history about minorities is “not an agenda popular with Latinos,” wrote Sanchez, a University of New Mexico political science professor and vice president of the BSP Research firm focused on the Latino electorate. He predicted that recent Supreme Court decisions “are likely to make affirmative action and protection of the rights of LGBTQ+ Americans priorities for Latino voters.”
So, while there’s no indication of a major change in Latino voting patterns, their vote remains unpredictable in U.S. elections, according to an Equis Research analysis of the 2022 election.
As for the state’s 2023 local elections, it will be difficult to increase turnout because municipal elections tend to have lower participation, Ismael-Simental said.
But she and other advocates say they are hopeful for 2024 as they focus their efforts on information campaigns and voter registration drives.
There is no single strategy for expanding Latino voter participation in North Carolina, given the diversity of political views in the community. While many Latino voters were angered by the high court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade, others have taken a more conservative stance on issues such as abortion. Those who cast their ballot for Trump based on his business experience may be less concerned about pocketbook issues now that the economy has stabilized. These shifts in voter priorities could influence Latino voter outreach strategies in North Carolina. Their impacts could also be felt more deeply as the Latino population grows in the state.
Editor’s Note: In this story, the terms Hispanic and Latino were used interchangeably because both are commonly used as umbrella terms for the various national-origin groups subsumed by these labels. While Latino is often the preferred noun or adjective for a person from, or whose ancestors were from, a Spanish-speaking land or culture or from Latin America, there are cases in which sources can also self-identify as Hispanic.
Criteria for acceptable or approved voter IDs – The State Board of Elections
How to get a no-fee, state ID from the NC DMV to vote – North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles
“Behind Biden’s 2020 Victory”: Pew Research Center.
“Key facts about Hispanic eligible voters in 2022”: Pew Research Center
“Hispanic Identity Fades Across Generations as Immigrant Connections Fall Away”: Pew Research Center
“When Labels Don’t Fit: Hispanics and Their Views of Identity”: Pew Research Center
“Will Latino voters help lead the GOP to victory in 2024?”Brookings Institute.
Sanchez, Gabriel R., et al., editors. “Latinos and the 2016 Election: Latino Resistance and the Election of Donald Trump.” Michigan State University Press, 2020. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.14321/j.ctvwrm66k.
Ocampo, Angela X., Garcia-Rios, Sergio I. and Gutierrez, Angela E.. “Háblame de tí: Latino mobilization, group dynamics and issue prioritization in the 2020 Election.” The Forum, vol. 18, no. 4, 2021, pp. 531-558. https://doi.org/10.1515/for-2020-2110
This article is part of U.S. Democracy Day, a nationwide collaborative on Sept. 15, the International Day of Democracy, in which news organizations cover how democracy works and the threats it faces. To learn more, visit usdemocracyday.org.
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