It’s mid-August in Arizona and the mercury tops 40 degrees on the steps outside Phoenix College, but the heat does little to deter Jose Barboza from his task. The 24-year-old, who wears a yellow t-shirt to mark him out as a volunteer for the immigrant rights group Promise Arizona, has been diligently registering new voters six days a week since February.
Barboza arrived in the US from Mexico aged four, grew up in Phoenix and considers himself an American. But he remains undocumented, and so cannot vote himself. “When I was in high school, my parents told me never to tell anyone where I was from,” he says. “I would say I was from Phoenix. But that was a lie, and I didn’t want to be living a lie my whole life.”
In 2012, he came out of the shadows and began volunteering for Promise Arizona, registering voters and getting them to the polls on election day. On a good day, he’ll sign up a dozen or more. “I love registering people, it motivates me,” he says. “My dream is to become a citizen… If you have the fundamental right to vote, that’s a privilege.”
One of those new voters is Julio Ramos, a freshman at Phoenix College who was born and raised in Arizona, but whose mother is as-yet-undocumented. Barboza watches as he fills out a voter registration form in the shade. Ramos, who recently turned 18, says he plans to seize his opportunity to vote for the first time: “My parents always told me, ‘Your vote counts.’”
At the 2012 election, Republican nominee Mitt Romney beat President Obama by more than nine percentage points in Arizona, a state that has voted for a Democratic presidential candidate just once since 1948. A 2012 report by researchers at Arizona State University suggested its rising Latino population – 21.5 per cent of eligible voters, at the last count – could turn the state blue by approximately 2030.
Instead, thanks in large part to Donald Trump, whose anti-immigrant rhetoric has done more to mobilise them than any Democrat, the state is a virtual toss-up in 2016. A RealClearPolitics average of recent Arizona polls puts Trump less than half a point ahead of Hillary Clinton.
A supposedly deep red state like Arizona would traditionally receive little attention from the candidates in a presidential election, but the Clinton campaign this month invested a six-figure sum to enlist new staff there, while the Republicans dispatched Trump’s running mate Mike Pence to hold morale-boosting rallies in Phoenix and Tucson.
The progressive advocacy group MoveOn.org is hiring organisers to get out the vote in Arizona, alongside several more familiar swing states such as Florida and Ohio. “This is an election that Democrats and progressives should win,” said Matt Blizek, MoveOn’s electoral field director. “The only way they’re going to lose is if they’re complacent and they don’t show up and vote.”
A Democratic win in Arizona is less about changing voters’ minds than it is about getting them to the polls. Yet, with a map that looks increasingly favourable for Clinton, her campaign doesn’t need the Grand Canyon state to reach the crucial 270 electoral college votes, which is why much of the get-out-the-vote effort is being left to groups like Promise Arizona.
So far, it would seem to be working. On the day of the presidential primary in March, 600,000 people cast ballots in Maricopa County, which includes the city of Phoenix. That’s twice as many as four years ago – despite a drastic reduction in the number of polling stations, from 200 in 2012 to just 60 in 2016.
Early last week, Barboza joined activists from One Arizona, a non-partisan coalition of Latino rights organisations, including Promise Arizona and Mi Familia Vota, as they relaunched their “Viva the Vote” campaign, a drive to register some 75,000 new voters across the state in the year to 10 October, the registration deadline.
One Arizona estimates that its volunteers have already knocked on more than a million doors and registered more than 100,000 people since 2010, when the state’s Republican-controlled legislature passed the controversial Senate Bill 1070 (SB1070), the harshest set of anti-immigration measures anywhere in the US.
SB1070, which prevented undocumented immigrants from having jobs and mandated state police to check the immigration status of anyone they detained or arrested, was widely criticised for encouraging racial profiling and terrorising communities with the threat of deportation. Some of the law's more draconian measures were later overturned in the courts.
For the activists, voter registration is not simply about winning another state for Hillary Clinton, says One Arizona spokeswoman Pita Juarez. “These kids aren’t walking around registering voters in 45-degree heat for blue or red. They’re walking for their families. We have candidates who are threatening to take people’s mothers away. It’s personal.”
The relationship between Latinos and Democrats is not uncomplicated. Despite his efforts to enact comprehensive immigration reform, President Obama is known to many as the “deporter-in-chief”, having expelled more than two million undocumented immigrants since he took office in 2009.
Clinton has vowed to pursue immigration reform anew, but it is Trump who has done most to turn Latino voters into a monolithic blue bloc in 2016. One recent national poll found that 82 per cent of Hispanic voters had an unfavourable view of the property mogul, who launched his campaign last year by describing Mexican immigrants as rapists and drug traffickers.
“Neither party has really done a good job of building relationships with the Latino community,” says Petra Falcon, the founder and executive director of Promise Arizona. “We’ll often register people who don’t know about the party system and have no idea who’s a Democrat and who’s a Republican. But this time, everybody knows who Hillary is and everybody knows who Trump is – and that is working in the Democrats’ favour.”
Trump’s unpopularity also threatens Republicans lower down the ticket, like John McCain, an Arizona Senator since 1987, who this year faces his toughest re-election fight to date. McCain must first defeat Kelli Ward, who is running from the right on a Tea Party-type platform, at the state’s Senate GOP primary on 30 August.
Then he’ll have to wage a general election campaign against Democratic congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick, who is explicitly targeting Latino voters. McCain, who turns 80 this month, won re-election in 2010 by 25 points, but recent polls put him a mere six ahead of Kirkpatrick.
The 2008 Republican presidential nominee was one of a bipartisan group of senators who wrote a comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2013, only to watch it die in the House of Representatives. This year, however, McCain has reluctantly endorsed Trump – who has not only campaigned on a promise to deport all of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the US, but who has also insulted McCain personally.
“If Donald Trump is at the top of the ticket, here in Arizona, with over 30 per cent of the vote being the Hispanic vote, no doubt that this may be the race of my life,” McCain told guests at a private fundraising event in May.
“Like the rest of the general public, the Latino community held Senator McCain in high esteem for his service and bravery as a prisoner of war [in Vietnam], as well as his willingness to see that the immigration system was broken and needed to be repaired,” says Roberto Reveles, founding president of the immigrant group Somos America. “But now he has a dilemma: does he continue to support Trump at the risk of offending the Mexican community? It puts him in a very precarious political situation.”
Even if McCain survives, as seems likely, the Trump effect may yet unseat another Republican Arizona stalwart, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who is also up for re-election this year. Arpaio, 84, a staunch Trump campaign surrogate notorious for his ruthless pursuit of undocumented immigrants, has been in office since 1993.
The man who styles himself “America’s toughest sheriff” may soon be the subject of criminal charges himself: this weekend, Arpaio was referred by a federal judge to the US Attorney, for allegedly violating a court’s order that his office desist from racially profiling Latinos. That would be vindication for Latino groups such as Somos America, who have been doing battle with Sheriff Joe since long before Trump began his political career.
Whether or not Arizona votes for Clinton in November, the state is trending towards the Democrats. In time, it is expected to replace Colorado as a southwestern battleground, as the latter state grows an ever darker shade of blue. Republicans in other states – including Texas, ostensibly a GOP bastion – are keenly aware of Hispanic voters’ growing influence.
But that doesn’t mean Democrats can take for granted the support of Latinos, whose turnout at elections has historically been modest. “Nationally, Blacks and Whites are twice as likely to receive campaign mobilisation than Latinos,” explains Edward Vargas, a senior analyst with the polling firm Latino Decisions.
“So it is no surprise that Latinos have lower turnout – they have lower rates of contact by campaigns and candidates. We still have not seen a major investment by candidates and parties in Arizona to register and mobilise Latinos… The parties cannot and should not outsource their Latino engagement to the Latino civic groups who have very little funding.”
Groups such as Promise Arizona face logistical challenges beyond just voter registration. In the past, they have collected ballots from voters on election day to deliver to polling stations. But this year, Republican state legislators outlawed the practice in Arizona, calling it “ballot harvesting” and claiming it could lead to voter fraud.
If that means activists have to work harder, they will. At Phoenix College, Jose Barboza is joined by a fellow volunteer, 42-year-old Maria Laris, who has lived in Arizona for 10 years after making the difficult border crossing through the desert from Mexico. Last November, she was deported with her husband. For more than five months, the couple were separated from their children, including a seven-year-old daughter who was born in the US.
Laris returned in May and volunteered to register voters for Promise Arizona earlier this month. “What motivated me was to make sure no other families get separated like mine,” she says. “The community needs change. God sent me to do this."
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