Jose Zacarias is a Barack Obama supporter but couldn’t vote for the president in 2008 because he wasn’t a U.S. citizen yet. So instead, he rallied his Latino friends and family members who could, to vote for Obama.
Fast forward four years. Zacarias is now not only a U.S. citizen, but also an elected city council member in West Liberty, Iowa. He says he continues motivating other Hispanics to register to vote because he’s convinced the Latino vote will be the deciding factor in the presidential election in Iowa.
“I want people to understand that every vote is important and every vote is going to count,” he said.
Zacarias, who immigrated from Mexico to the United States 27 years ago, said he plans to vote for Obama and predicts the president will hold an edge among Latinos in Iowa. But like in most states, Hispanics in Iowa traditionally have a low voter turnout. The city council member said that is in large part because most Latinos come from countries that “don’t have a democratic tradition”—where voting is not always encouraged.
“We are trying to change that and make people understand the importance of voting and getting involved in the political process,” Zacarias told VOXXI. “If we don’t get involved, we wont have political representation.”
The League of Latino United Citizens (LULAC) has also been working to get Latinos to adopt a tradition of voting. So far, the nonpartisan organization has identified 35,000 Latinos who are registered to vote in Iowa and hopes to register 15,000 more by the Nov. 6 election. If it succeeds, Latinos will make up about 3 percent of the state’s overall voter population.
That’s a relatively low share but in a swing state where polls show a virtual dead heat between Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney, the Latino vote could be enough to determine the outcome of the election.
In 2008, Obama won Iowa by a 9 percent margin. But the race in 2012 is much closer and has been tightening in the past few months. A poll released Aug. 27 by the Public Policy Polling showed the president leading Romney in the swing state by two points (47 to 45). That’s down from 48 to 43 in July and 51 to 41 in May.
Still, Zacarias said, “I truly believe that Iowa is going to go for Obama like we saw in 2008.”
LULAC state director Joe Henry said his organization has also seen much support for Obama among Latinos in Iowa. But regardless of who they intend to vote for, Henry said LULAC is committed to motivating all Latino voters and getting them into the habit of voting—and so far they’ve been successful.
“We’re seeing that Latinos are very excited,” Henry said. “They understand that we are going to be a significant player in this election.”
Besides voter registration, Henry said LULAC has been working alongside the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa to refute Secretary of State Matt Schultz’s allegations that foreign nationals have registered and voted in the past.
Schultz said last month that in an investigation comparing state voter registration and driver’s license records, it was determined that 3,582 non-citizens have registered to vote in Iowa since 2008. He claimed 1,200 voted in 2010 and 1,400 have cast ballots since that year.
What’s not known, like in other states with similar voter purges, is how many of those people became U.S. citizens after they received an Iowa driver’s license, permit or identification card from the state’s Department of Transportation that identified them as non-citizens.
Still, Schultz wants to remove those individuals who may have voted illegally from the state’s voter rolls. He also wants access to federal citizenship data that will help state officials determine the immigration status of those who have voted in Iowa.
LULAC and the ACLU filed a lawsuit against him and his office last month arguing that there is no evidence that indicates this type of voter fraud is actually occurring. Schultz fired back and asked the District Judge Mary Pat Gunderson to throw out the lawsuit, saying the organizations had no legal standing. The judge denied that request Wednesday and proceeded with the case.
Rita Bettis, legislative director of ACLU’s Iowa chapter, stated Wednesday that Schultz’s actions will have the effect of intimidating Latino citizens who are eligible to vote.
“We’re heartened that the case will proceed, because this is an issue of great importance to voters in this state,” Bettis said. “The Secretary exceeded his power. He’s using unreliable information to target registered voters.”