As both the Republican and Democratic parties clamor to claim a larger share of the Latino electorate this year, electronic voter registration has emerged as a potential sweet spot, a space where political procedure may collide with culture and boost Latino voter participation.
In New Mexico, that theory is in the early stages of a ground test.
Jetta Reynolds has spent a good portion of the last five years working to register voters in the Albuquerque, N.M., area. She’s heard the questions people raise about the process so often that before she deployed nearly 200 volunteers to do the same work at grocery stores and street fairs this year, she created her own Spanish and English-language voter registration brochure. But when Reynolds took Jason Libersky -- one of the developers behind a new voter registration app called Evotee -- and his iPad to a session for mostly Latino and Native American potential voters Monday, it was Reynolds who walked away surprised.
"With paper forms, you always run into people who hesitate when you ask for their Social [Security number]," Reynolds said. "Once that happens, you usually wind up giving them the form and just hoping they'll actually drop it in the mail. But it seemed like every person Jason asked -- name, birthdate, social, address-- it was just tap, tap, swipe and send. I honestly can't say I've seen anything like it."
This month, Libersky and his app will team up with the Tequila Party, an organization founded by Latinas concerned about the tenor and content of the nation’s immigration debate.
Since 2008 -- a year in which then-candidate Barack Obama's campaign organization registered and mobilized millions of new voters -- nearly 30 states have enacted laws restricting the activities of groups and individuals that work to put voters on the rolls, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In 2011 alone, legislators in 34 states considered so-called voter ID laws. Voter ID policies require voters to present specific types of identification in order to cast a ballot. To date, 10 states have put voter ID laws in place. New Mexico does not have a voter ID law but has restricted the activities of groups that have worked to register voters for most of the last six years. It is also widely considered a potential swing state where the Latino vote may control political fates. In New Mexico, where nearly half of the population is Hispanic and voted heavily for Obama in 2008, Gov. Susana Martinez has also been mentioned as a potential running mate for GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
"Can an iPad and an app outweigh the voter ID laws and everything else that's going on?" said DeeDee Garcia Blase, a co-founder of the Tequila Party. "Probably not. But I think walking around canvasing and trying to register voters will be a moment where we can reach out and wake up Chicanos. It's like a strong countervailing wind."
Proponents of voter ID and registration restriction laws say they help protect the integrity and accuracy of the voting process. Opponents insist that voter fraud and voter registration malfeasance are rare. The laws will suppress the number of new voters -- namely black, Latino and low-income individuals -- who participate in the 2012 election, they say, because these groups disproportionately lack state-issued IDs and access to the money and documents required to obtain them.
While the new laws have prompted some organizations to suspect voter registration efforts in key states, and groups such as the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund and NAACP continue to contest the policies in court, other ground-level political activists have turned their attention to newly-emerging strategies, such as technology.
Some of the very groups of voters that are at the greatest risk of being excluded by voter ID laws and restrictions on voter registration drives, are not unreachable. In fact, they are slightly more likely to own and use a smart phone, according to an April study released by the Pew Research Center's Internet in American Life Project. And that technology, electronic voting advocates like Evotee’s Libersky insist, can be revolutionary.
"What we're talking about is putting voter registration in places where you haven't traditionally seen [it], and at the same time taking the hassle out of the process," Libersky, also the co-founder and CEO of Evotee.com, said. "I can't tell you how many times I've been at lunch, leaned over to the table next to me, asked them if they are registered and inevitably, at least one of them will say no. Two minutes later, we whip through the app and get it done."
Evotee is an iPad app created less than a year ago by what Libresky describes as a San Francisco–based team of scientist-geek activists concerned about the difficulties Americans face participating in the political process. The app essentially allows anyone with an iPad and a cursory understanding of touch-screen mobile devices to answer or pose a series of questions, complete, encrypt and then immediately transmit a voter registration form to state or county election officials.
Right now, the app is available free of charge to organizations and individuals that register with Evotee.com and undergo training. By July, Libresky expects that versions of the app will be available for voter registration groups and activists equipped with iPhones and any phone or device that runs with the help of an Android system.
Libersky, who lives in Albequerque, and an employee spent the last month testing the app and registering voters in Democratic-voter dominated Bernalillio County and Republican-controlled San Juan County. The app has added about 2,000 voters to the state's rolls, he said.
Using the web to register voters isn't exactly new. Rock the Vote, a nonpartisan organization that works to register voters under age 25, has hosted a voter registration widget on its website since the late 1990s. In the run up to the 2008 election, the online form helped the organization register nearly 2.25 million new voters, said Heather Smith, Rock the Vote’s president.
Voto Latino, a nonpartisan group that works to register and mobilize Latino voters, operates a similar form on its web site and this year will pour much of its energy into reaching potential voters online, said Dan McSwain, a Voto Latino spokesman.
But the forms both groups make available require individuals to print, sign and mail or deliver an application to local or state election officials. Evotee and similar software developed by San Jose-based Allpoint Voter Services in 2010 take the printing, mailing and follow through out of the hands of voters and automate the process.
For all the breathless television news coverage, magazine covers and Power Point presentations put up for political operatives about the rise of the Latino voter in 2012, there are real reasons to worry about Latino voter participation, said Antonio Gonzalez, president of the San Antonio-based William C. Velasquez Institute, a San Antonio-based nonpartisan political and economic research organization.
Between 2008 and 2010, the number Latino voters registered to vote actually declined by about 600,000 voters, leaving the Latino electorate at about 11 million people, Gonzalez said.
The recession boosted black and Latino unemployment rates to near Depression-level highs and cost a disproportionate share of minority families their homes. It scattered millions to new addresses where they must register to vote again, Gonzalez said. Some of these voters may be embittered or even numb. And when combined with voter ID and registration restriction laws, there are good reasons to suspect that Latino voter turnout in 2012 may fail to top 2008 voting tallies.
"I would be the last person to turn away any tool that might register more people to vote or get more voters to the polls," Gonzalez said. "And this app may be one of them. But there simply is no silver bullet, no cure all for the situation in 2012."