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Latino Voters Face Even More Voting Challenges Because Of Pandemic

NOEL KING, HOST:

If Latinos vote in large numbers, they could impact who wins this year's elections, but this is a group that typically has low voter turnout. And this year, there are new obstacles in their way. Here's NPR's Leila Fadel.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Sany Lackey is 61. She's been in the U.S. for 35 years and lives in Las Vegas. This election, she's a citizen for the first time and eligible to vote.

SANY LACKEY: I'm feeling very happy. And I feel like finally I'm going to accomplish something that I wanted to do 35 years ago. So I'm happy about it.

FADEL: But when we spoke, she wasn't registered.

LACKEY: I don't know how to do it. I don't know where to do it. And I don't know where to go either. We don't have a lot of information.

FADEL: And she doesn't know how to use the Internet. She only texts and picks up calls on her phone. She doesn't have a car and doesn't read English. All of that makes things less accessible. And voting is only one of Lackey's many concerns. She's lost her income as a child care taker. Her son lost his construction job when there was a COVID-19 outbreak, and that forced the site to close. The daughter she moved in with to save money also lost her job at a call center and has resorted to selling blood plasma to pay bills.

LACKEY: It is hard for our community. Only the people that they have money only the people that be able to survive and get ahead. We struggle to feed our kids. We struggle to go through all the situations that we go. (Crying) How you can do it? How? It's impossible.

FADEL: That's why she reached out to Win Justice in Nevada, a progressive advocacy coalition. That group was helping her register and working with her on a plan to vote. Her story is all too common.

LIZETTE ESCOBEDO: There is some decline in voter enthusiasm amongst Latinos, primarily because our communities are being impacted by deaths in the family due to COVID-19.

FADEL: That's Lizette Escobedo of the NALEO Educational Fund, a nonpartisan organization that works to get Latinos fully engaged in the political process. Unemployment rates have spiked among Latinos, and Latinos make up an outsized share of front-line workers. A survey from the NALEO Education Fund (ph) found that 33% of people knew someone with COVID-19, so voting might not be top of mind. Meanwhile, people largely can't register in person, which in the past was the main avenue to reaching Latino communities.

ESCOBEDO: Usually, your communities have access, either through the DMV, the post office, a lot of organizations doing voter registration drive - we don't have that this year. So a lot of our communities and the advocates are having to really rely on online voter registration, which looks different everywhere.

FADEL: Escobedo says, historically, there's been distrust in the voting process. So this year, with many people depending on mail-in ballots, the various state and county rules present an even bigger challenge. That same survey found that while 50% of people wanted to vote by mail, 30% didn't know how.

Debbie Ortiz of the Association for the Advancement of Mexican Americans in Houston says her organization had big plans for voter education and voter registration booths for the first time this year. But much of that was canceled because of the pandemic. Instead, Ortiz and others went to people in the food pantry line at her organization to register them. They also used phone banking.

DEBBIE ORTIZ: We were hoping to get 390 people registered. But because of the obstacles, we only were successful in registering 124. But we felt like it was really our best effort.

FADEL: Despite the challenges, organizers are still optimistic. Jackie Colon is a director for NALEO Educational Fund in Florida. She says Latinos don't vote as a monolith, and candidates need to speak to these communities directly. As Election Day nears, she feels more enthusiasm.

JACKIE COLON: And so with our Latino community, Generation Z, the millennials, that's our largest population in the Hispanic community. And they're very engaged, and they're making phone calls, and they're texting one another. And so in the midst of our pain, we're stepping up.

FADEL: NALEO Education Fund is projecting that over 14 million Latinos will turn out to vote this year, a 15% increase over the last presidential election.

Leila Fadel, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.