As Texas prepares for the midterm elections in November, a growing effort is underway to encourage a surge of Democratic voters in the Republican-dominated state. Much of this movement’s energy centers on the state’s large Latino population.
Texas has one of the lowest voter participation rates in the country. Latinos, who lean Democratic in Texas, have tended to stay away from the polls in larger percentages than white voters. Nearly 40 percent of the state population is Hispanic, and this demographic could become a majority as early as 2022, according to projections from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Grassroots organizations working to engage Latino voters and sign them up to cast their ballots on Nov. 6 are placing a special focus on the youth vote. Young Latinos’ views tend to align with Democrats’ on key issues like immigration, explains Cristina Tzintzun, founder and executive director of the liberal nonprofit Jolt.
“When young Latinos come out and vote in Texas, we’re going to be a shock to the political system ― not just to our state but to the entire country,” says Tzintzun, whose mother is Mexican.
The kind of shift Tzintzun is talking about will take years to achieve. Polls in Texas project only a modest increase in Latino support for Democratic candidates in the midterm elections. But Tzintzun is enthusiastic about the future.
National voter groups working in Texas ― like Mi Familia Vota and UnidosUS (formerly the National Council of La Raza) ― engage people of color all across the country. But Jolt remains focused specifically on Texas. The organization also collaborates with the Texas Youth Power Alliance to form part of a coalition of like-minded groups tapping directly into the voting potential of the state’s young Latinos.
This is a movement that Tzintzun deems absolutely necessary in an era where the president is harshly anti-immigrant and has spewed shocking anti-Latino rhetoric in the past. In fact, Donald Trump’s election spurred Tzintzun to launch Jolt in 2016, a year earlier than she’d planned. Since then, the Trump administration has cracked down on undocumented people across the country by orchestrating massive raids by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and sparking fear in communities that have a high proportion of undocumented people.
With the aim of registering a total of 75,000 new voters before the midterms, Jolt representatives are beating the streets, knocking on thousands of doors and talking directly to Latinos about issues they care about. It’s the same strategy being employed by Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s campaign to oust incumbent Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican.
HuffPost sat down with Tzintzun to talk about Jolt’s plan to register as many Latino voters as possible in Texas over the next few years.
What made you decide to found Jolt?
We are focused on increasing young Latino voter participation in our state because over the next decade, 2 million Latinos will turn 18, and 95 percent of them are U.S. citizens and will be eligible to vote. We are a state of 36 congressional seats, 38 electoral votes, and we are a state where people of color are not reflected in those that hold office and the issues that get addressed by our legislature or by our congressional representatives. We seek to change that by harnessing the power of young Latino voters in our state.
What is the mentality behind focusing on young Latino voters specifically?
Latinos have the lowest voter turnout of any ethnic group [in Texas]. There is next to no infrastructure in the state to uplift and harness the power of one of the largest voting blocks in Texas. People think of Texas as a very red state, but the population is actually very progressive.
One in two Latinos in Texas has a parent that is foreign-born. It’s incredibly important that we put the right people in office to deliver real change long term for our families.
Texas is a very young state, much younger than other states. And Texas has the youngest Latino population.
Do you see Jolt’s work as being able to help flip the state from red to blue?
Not yet. It won’t just take one organization to change the behavior and culture of Texas, which has 28 million people and growing. It takes a constellation of organizations and individuals to make that happen. We want our contribution to make sure that young Latinos’ votes and voices are heard and, more importantly, that their issues and the real challenges they face every single day are addressed. People project that the state will flip at the earliest by 2022. Some people say 2020. I think that’s a little ambitious. But it’s a long-term game.
Progressives are not good about a long-term vision endgame. They think in terms of one election cycle. But if you take Texas out of Republication hands, you’ve shifted the entire electoral map for the country.
Have you found that Latinos have the mentality that “My state is red and it’s going to stay red. My vote won’t matter so why bother?”
Yes. We’ve definitely seen that as the No. 1 reason people didn’t vote: high levels of cynicism. They don’t know that their votes matter. Most don’t know that they are the majority or that they soon will be in Texas. They don’t trust politicians and they don’t believe that their vote matters.
What strategies are you using to cater to the first-time voters?
Our main frame is “brown is powerful” and “Latino is powerful,” and we hold the power in our hands to not just determine the future of our state but of the entire country. And the young people love that message.
If you go to our Instagram page, it’s a lot of pictures of art, of Latinos looking powerful. We honor the moment of real suffering that Latinos are facing across this country but we move our community to a vision of power and hope.
What are your goals as we approach that date and then leading up to the 2020 election?
The event that people know Jolt the most for is a protest we did with 15 teen girls in their quinceañera dresses in front of the state Capitol. That ended up getting seen by 50 million people. Over 2019 and 2020, we are launching a campaign called #PoderQuince #QuincePower to register 150,000 Latino voters. There are 50,000 quinceañera every year in Texas, and we’re having girls sign on starting in 2019 to make speeches at their quinceañera about why they are going to vote when they turn 18, and they’ll hand out gifts that are art pieces with facts about the Latino vote. And then [Jolt’s volunteer deputy registrars] will be allowed in [to the party] to register voters. We are going to focus on Latino culture and community using one of the most traditional venues that our community experiences.
Trump’s election pushed you to launch Jolt a year early. What effect did his election have on you?
It was really devastating. I think I spent my first two or three days in bed crying. It’s also very personal because my husband is a Dreamer [an undocumented immigrant brought to America as a child] and all of his other family members are also undocumented.
Two weeks after Trump took office, my son was born. The idea of bringing my first child into the world the month Trump was going to take office, knowing that they wanted to take his father from him, was devastating to me.
Have there been things that have happened to you during this current administration that really make you glad you are doing this with your life now?
After my son was born, I had terrified people across Austin calling me while I was in my hospital bed ― people who were afraid to leave their homes, people who weren’t sending their children to school, an entire community living in absolute terror. So I’m glad every day that I’ve started Jolt, not just for the outlet that it’s given me in this real moment of sadness and suffering in our community, but for all the young people that I get to work with that felt like every day they get up and they turn on the TV or listen to those in power and have said that they felt small, that they felt unwelcome, that they felt like they were unequal. And now that they know that the reason they are being attacked is because they are powerful, they can transform the people.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.