A longtime NC advocate for Latino residents says the state is reckoning with a powerful new bloc that could change party politics.
Ricky Hurtado did something not even Gov. Roy Cooper could do in 2020.
Hurtado, a 31-year-old progressive, was the only Democrat in a contested race to win here in deep-red Alamance County. Not Cooper, as popular a Democratic candidate as you’re like to see in NC. Not Cunningham. Not Biden. No other Democrat; just Ricky.
This exciting outcome is the result of various organizations, not to mention the candidate and his campaign, putting in some serious work to turn out the vote.
But it also speaks to a change in this state that we might have seen coming, if not perhaps this soon in Alamance: the emergence of an increasingly powerful voting bloc of Latinx North Carolinians.
This election didn’t go the way Democrats wanted it to in North Carolina. But Latinx voters have so much to celebrate.
We elected five candidates, including Hurtado, who reflect our communities not only in values, but also ethnically. We substantially increased the Latinx electorate, investing in civic skills of hundreds of Latinxs across the state, including in rural counties. And we carved out space for Latinxs whether they are voters or non-voters, because we all play critical roles in shaping our state.
Read More: Cardinal & Pine’s live election blog
North Carolina’s fate depends on the investments that are made in the near future in our Black and brown communities. This election provided Latinx residents an opportunity to build a civic and political muscle that many of us did not even know we had. It will continue to strengthen in the years to come.
Latinx voters in North Carolina have historically been neglected because our voting population was considered too small to make an impact in the outcome of elections.
In 2016, North Carolina elected Cooper won by just 10,000 votes and it put the Latinx electorate—about 164,000 registered voters, according to the Pew Research Center—into perspective. While our electorate is smaller compared to non-Latinx Black and white voters, it is projected to grow substantially in years to come.
The largest cohort of North Carolina born Latinxs will age into the electorate by 2024.
While anti-immigrant groups were forming in 2005, after many in NC’s Latinx community advocated for in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants, our community was literally birthing the game-changing generation that could flip North Carolina from a red state to a blue state.
Demographics alone, however, are not destiny as Florida keeps reminding us.
Intentional investments must be made in our young community–where the average North Carolina born Latinx is barely a tween–in order for future voters to be inspired to participate and stay engaged in our democracy. Like their peers, young Latinxs do not ascribe to labels and are registering as unaffiliated. This leaves the door open for engagement with whichever political party, candidate, or organizations (and any combination of these) in which they see a reflection of themselves and their values.
In 2019, I founded Poder NC Action, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization with the purpose of increasing civic education participation and leadership with the state’s young Latinx community.
The goal was to gauge the appetite of Latinxs for electoral and civic organizing in the 2020 elections and then to build upon that through 2024, the first year that we would see and feel the impact of intentional civic engagement organizing in the Latinx community.
In our inaugural year, we began to build in the tradition of our ancestors with our eyes fixed seven generations into the future. We carried out our work from a place of fierce love and care for our community. What we learned in these last few months demonstrates that when a community feels seen, valued, and heard it will share its most precious resources, time and personal networks, and these resources play a significant role in determining the outcome of elections.
Everything that we tried this year as we formed and executed our plans was an experiment. There was not much to lose, and everything to be gained.
A Historic Victory
One of the most significant organizing opportunities was around independently supporting the candidacy of Latinxs who were positioning themselves to run in local and state-level elections. The most flippable legislative seat, House District 63 in eastern Alamance County, happened to have the first progressive Latinx candidate in Hurtado.
In this district we saw the meeting of the North Carolina we once knew and the present and future North Carolina embodied by Black and Brown voters. Those voters could finally see themselves reflected on the ballot through Ricky’s candidacy, as well as that of Dreama Caldwell who ran for county commissioner.
The historic victory in Alamance proves that we needed every tactic from phone-banking to conversations at the doors to get the outcome we wanted. It is also important to note that many of the conversations that were happening with Latinx voters in Alamance were led by Latinx-led organizations. The messenger and the delivery of the message matters and cannot be underestimated.
North Carolina is richer because in one night, we retained the Mecklenburg County Commission seat of Susan Rodriguez-McDowell, the District Court Judicial seats in Pitt and Cumberland counties held by Judge Mario Perez and Judge Luis Olivera; and we gained one new Latinx County Commissioner in Chatham County with the election of 26-year-old Franklin Gomez Flores.
The Latinx electorate grew 22% between 2016 and 2020, from 186,000 voters to 228,000 voters. Most significantly however, is the fact that there was at least a 50% turnout of Latinx voters this election cycle in North Carolina!
In 2016, only 44% of our voters turned out to vote at all. This year, looking at early voting data alone, there were 128,000 Latinxs who voted during the two-week window that early voting provides. This is an increase of 48%. By the time we are able to review the voter file data which will paint a clear picture of who turned out to vote and how they voted, we will likely be able to say that each Latinx voter from 2016 brought at least one other voter to the polls in 2020.
What is even more telling is that we will likely see 40% of Latinxs who voted during early voting were first-time voters!
This is the highest increase of first-time voters of any state.
In order for our state to continue to move towards progress, we need to continue to invest in the civic organizing skills of our communities, especially in rural counties experiencing some of the biggest demographic changes and where we can alter the makeup of who governs more swiftly.
It is no surprise that of the five Latinxs who won their elections this year, three are from more rural areas, places where proportionally our votes can go farther, places like Wilson, Yadkin, Sampson and Lee counties.
Now that they’ve tasted what building power can accomplish, these young organizers are not going anywhere.