Jonathan Flores spent a sunny Saturday in late October knocking on the doors of registered voters in this predominantly Hispanic, working-class city in southeast Los Angeles County. Most people weren’t home or didn’t come to the door. Some of those who did expressed strong opinions about Joe Biden and Donald Trump and expressed interest in abortion rights and clean air initiatives on the California ballot for the Nov. 8 election. One young man rejected Flores, saying he doubted his vote would be counted.
Like the other campaigners sent out that day by AltaMed Health Services Corp., a large chain of community clinics, Flores wore a black baseball cap and a T-shirt that said “My Voice. My health”. Underneath it said the same in Spanish “Mi Voto. Mi Salud’. His mission was to urge residents to vote, even if they had never voted, so they could be fairly represented at City Hall, Sacramento and beyond.
“I feel like I’ve seen communities — people who look like me, like my parents — struggle through so much,” said Flores, 31, whose mother and father were born in Mexico and now live in the Central Valley. “So getting to the root of these issues is basically what made me do this.”
Health care institutions across the United States have made voting efforts in recent years, inspired by the growing belief that voting improves the health of individuals and communities. The American Medical Association supported this idea. AltaMed, with an active civic engagement department, targeted more than a quarter of a million registered voters in Los Angeles and Orange counties this election, most of them in Latino communities. She has offered early voting at a dozen clinics and plans to send canvassers by Election Day.
“Our problems are often triggered — or exacerbated — by factors in our daily lives, whether it’s the air we breathe, where we live, the food we eat,” said Alia Bhatia, executive director of Vot-ER, a nonprofit organization that which works with 700 US hospitals and clinics, including AltaMed, to encourage patients and staff members to vote. “Vot-ER’s work helps patients be part of an upstream process to shape those policies that affect our health.”
Getting out the vote can be a challenge in Latino communities despite their potential as an electoral force. The Latino population has quadrupled in the past four decades and now makes up 19% of the US population. In California, Hispanics make up over 39% of the population, which exceeds the share of non-Hispanic whites and makes them the largest ethnic or racial group in the state.
However, voter turnout among Latinos continues to lag behind other groups. Their turnout in the 2020 election was more than 14 percentage points below that of the state’s voting population, according to data from the Center for Inclusive Democracy at the University of Southern California’s Saul Price School of Public Policy.
Researchers and Latino advocacy groups cite a variety of factors that prevent Latinos from voting, including feelings of cultural and linguistic marginalization, mistrust of government, a disproportionately high rate of poverty and a younger-than-average population. Another key factor, they said, is the lack of outreach by political campaigns and other election organizations.
In a recent survey by the Latino Community Foundation, 71 percent of Latinos in California said they had not been contacted by a political party, campaign or other organization this year.
“It makes a difference in whether they actually go out to vote,” said Mindy Romero, director of the Center for Inclusive Democracy.
In neighboring Los Angeles, mayoral candidate Rick Caruso, a billionaire real estate developer, has made a serious effort to woo Latinos, which could play a decisive role in his race to lead a city where they make up nearly half the population. After trailing by double digits early on, Caruso has pulled even with his opponent, U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, according to a recent poll published by the Southern California News Group.
Notably, 43.7% of Latino voters said they would support Caruso, compared to 29.4% for Bass.
“He meets us where we are, in our businesses, where we shop, where we eat. He’s telling us he sees us and hears us,” said Nilza Serrano, president of the Avance Democratic Club, a Los Angeles County Latino organization that has drawn scrutiny over its support for Caruso. “I think our community is tired and a little bit worn out from not being heard.”
In Huntington Park, where 97 percent of residents are Hispanic or Latino, mostly of Mexican descent, the upcoming election was not top of mind for some residents.
Maria Robles, 28, who was born here to Mexican immigrants, got confused when asked about her party affiliation. “I don’t know. Is it the Democrats?” she asked, speaking through the front door. Robles said she voted for Biden in the last election, but now regrets it and if she could do it over again, she would vote for Trump instead.
Surveys show that health care is a top concern among Latinos, although it is overshadowed by concerns about inflation and the economy. Latinos are more likely than other residents to be uninsured. Nationally, they have high rates of diabetes and obesity. And their communities have been hit hard by covid-19.
But political campaigns have repeatedly failed to connect Latino health care to voting, Romero said.
One example is the Inflation Reduction Act, which, among many other things, caps monthly insulin costs for Medicare beneficiaries at $35. Democrats wanted the insulin cap to apply to privately insured people as well, but that provision was blocked by Senate Republicans, denying the benefit to millions.
“Yet very few Democrats are talking about this on the campaign trail,” said Rodrigo Dominguez-Villegas, director of research at UCLA’s Institute on Latin American Politics and Policy. “I mean, the ad pretty much writes itself: ‘We tried to get this across for everybody, but the Republicans opposed this particular policy that would have benefited your uncle, your grandmother, your father, your cousin. “
The environment is another important concern. Residents of Huntington Park and neighboring towns, nearly all overwhelmingly Latino, have lived for decades with air and soil pollution from nearby heavy industry and traffic along Interstate 710, a freeway corridor clogged with diesel trucks hauling freight from the national two busiest ports.
Huntington Park resident Brian Martinez was excited when he learned about Proposition 30, a state measure that would impose an additional 1.75 percent tax on personal income over $2 million to subsidize purchases of zero-emission vehicles, power stations charging and fire prevention programs.
“It’s something I’m really interested in,” Martinez, 32, said. “It’s amazing how much pollution comes here with the winds. I have many friends who are asthmatic.’
Californians are also being asked to vote on an initiative, Proposition 1, that would cement the right to abortion in the state constitution — a response to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down Roe v. Wade. Numerous polls show that Latinos strongly support abortion rights, including the Latino Community Foundation poll, which found 61% of Latinos in California support Proposition 1.
Margarita Gallegos, a Huntington Park resident who was born in Mexico and immigrated to the United States nearly 50 years ago, has expressed strong support for abortion rights.
“There are people who have been abused and don’t want to have a baby,” Gallegos, 68, said in Spanish. “Women should have the right to choose for themselves and should also be able to take what they need to avoid pregnancy.
Speaking to Flores and two of his AltaMed colleagues from her front porch, Gallegos said it’s important for people to vote and that she definitely will.
This story was produced by KHN, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation.
This article was reprinted from khn.org with permission from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent news service, is a program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan health policy research organization not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.