The day before a class action civil rights lawsuit accusing Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his office of wide-scale civil rights violations went to trial in Phoenix, a handful of people stood at the corner of North 27th Avenue and West Indian School Road just off the city’s Black Canyon Freeway.
Wearing “Adios Arpaio” T-shirts, the small group staged a protest at one of the busiest intersections in mostly Latino West Phoenix, aimed at what some consider two of Arizona’s biggest problems: Arpaio and apathy.
Some signs read, “Honk If You Don’t Like Arpaio.” Others bore the words, “Register to Vote Here.” After an hour, 11 people registered to vote.
“I know that sounds tiny,” said Daria Ovide, a coordinator for the Campaign for Arizona’s Future, a union-financed group working to register Latino voters in Arizona, a key battleground state. “But believe me, it matters.”
What happens at thousands of intersections, car shows and carnivals when eligible, but unregistered Latino voters, and avid canvassers like Ovide meet, may well determine the outcome of the next presidential election. Those meetings could so dramatically reshape the political landscape, activists and analysts agree that consistently red states could become swing states or turn blue.
Right now in 10 battleground states -- places where both the Obama and Romney campaigns say victory is feasible -- there are 12.1 million unregistered, but potentially eligible, Latino adults, according to new data released late Thursday by the Center for American Progress, a Washington, D.C., think tank. In uber-important Florida, the state's 1.4 million unregistered, potentially eligible Latino adults represent a group of voters five times larger than Obama’s margin of victory in 2008.
“If just a portion of these potential voters do come out and vote they could swing the election,” said Philip Wolgin, an immigration policy analyst at the center. “And while I don’t think that Texas is going to become a swing state tomorrow, I also don’t think that four years ago anyone thought that Arizona would be either. Look at it now.”
In Arizona, 405,300 Latino U.S. citizens do not have voting credentials. And another 575,300 Latino permanent legal residents could become naturalized citizens, register and vote.
In 2008, John McCain carried the state by 195,404 votes.
These potential voters, according to a series of recent polls, care deeply about immigration issues like racial profiling by law enforcement and the Supreme Court’s June decision on Arizona’s SB170, “show me your papers” laws, as well as jobs, education and health care, said Clarissa Martinez, the National Council of La Raza's director of civic engagement and immigration. The National Council of La Raza (NCLR) is a Washington, D.C.-based civil rights organization.
Having more Hispanic voters in the political system, could force action on some of the nation’s more intractable political issues, she said.
For most Central and South American immigrants, the wait for a visa that allows for legal immigration to the United States can stretch for two decades or more. Once here, immigrants may apply for legal permanent residency. Most legal permanent residents must wait three to five years to apply for citizenship. Then, after passing English-language proficiency, U.S. civics and history exams and paying an $800 fee, legal permanent residents typically wait a minimum of four to six months to be summoned to a swearing in ceremony where they become U.S. citizens.
NCLR is working with local nonprofit agencies and canvassers in states like Florida, Nevada, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Texas, California, North Carolina, New York and Idaho to help those who are eligible to become naturalized citizens do so and those who can register to vote obtain credentials.
“When we talk about electoral expansion, you really are talking about sweeping changes to the nation’s political calculus, there’s no doubt,” said Martinez. “But part of the challenge is that the best resourced efforts are concentrated in election years and are associated with candidates or parties who are interested in the short-term. They want to win the next election.”
To win the next election, most campaigns focus their energy and money on reaching so-called habitual voters or reducing the number of people who turn out to vote for the opposition. Habitual voters are the share of already registered voters who vote in every election possible.
In some ways, the limited interest political parties and candidates have shown in helping people to become citizens is good, said Martinez.
Politicizing the citizenship process could become unseemly. On the other, investment in naturalization and voter registration work is desperately needed right now, she said.
In Phoenix, the "Adios Arpiao" crew gets the funding it needs from Unite Here, a hospitality workers union, and the AFL-CIO, said Ovide. The group aims to counterbalance Voter ID policies, the effects of shortened early voting periods and efforts to identify alleged non-citizens on voter rolls around the country. Opponents say these measures will make it more difficult for many older voters, minorities and low -income adults to participate. Proponents insist that the laws protect the integrity of the voting process and prevent alleged voter fraud.
The day that Arpaio’s trial began, canvasser’s wearing "Adios Arpaio" T-shirts fanned out to supermarkets, a gas station, a library and a restaurant in hopes of registering Latino voters.
That day, they registered 150, Ovide said.
Chart shows Hispanic voter participation rates for previous U.S. presidential elections
FILE - In this April 10, 2012 file photo, President Barack Obama speaks at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Fla. In the presidential battleground offering the biggest prize, Democrat Barack Obama is focused on ratcheting up voter turnout in Florida's university towns, Hispanic enclaves like the Puerto Rican-dominated Orlando region and South Florida's Jewish communities. Republican challenger Mitt Romney, in turn, is working to squeeze as many votes as possible out of north Florida's conservative military bastions, the senior-heavy Gulf Coast and Miami's Cuban community. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky, File)
** FILE - In this Jan. 27, 2012, file photo Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, campaigns in Cape Canaveral, Fla. as he and GOP candidate Newt Gingrich seek to woo Hispanics voters before the Florida primary. As Romney continues to seek the Republican presidential nomination by rarely discussing his faith, a growing number of vocal Hispanic Mormons say they intend to use Mormon teachings as a reason to convince others not to vote for him. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)
In this Friday, June 29, 2012 photo, Carissa Valdez, left, a volunteer for President Barack Obama's reelection campaign, listens to Ruben Gallardo, who she registers to vote, as a group of volunteers work to register new voters as they canvass a heavily Latino neighborhood in Phoenix. Across the country both political parties have been courting the Latino vote, the nation's fastest-growing minority group. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
FILE - In this Oct. 27, 2006, file photo, then-Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, speaks after taking a tour with Rep. Jean Schmidt, R-Ohio, at Total Quality Logistics, Inc., a truckload freight brokerage company in Milford, Ohio. President Barack Obama's 2012 re-election team is running upbeat ads on Spanish-language stations in pivotal election states _ a sharp contrast to the hard-hitting commercials in English that the incumbent's campaign is airing against Republican rival Mitt Romney. Romney hasn't given up on Hispanic voters. During the first week of June 2012, Romney's campaign announced Juntos con Romney, a Hispanic leadership team led by Gutierrez. "The Hispanic community has been especially hard-hit by President Obama's policies," Gutierrez said in a statement. "Mitt Romney has a proven record of creating jobs both in the private sector and as governor." (AP Photo/David Kohl)
In this Friday, June 29, 2012 photo, volunteer for President Barack Obama's reelection campaign, Vergie Morris, left, registers Valentin Navarro to vote as volunteers register new voters at a table set up in front of campaign headquarters at a local shopping plaza in Phoenix. Across the country both political parties have been courting the Latino vote, the nation's fastest-growing minority group.(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
California Republican Party Chairman Tom Del Beccaro conducts a press conference during the California Republican Party convention Friday, Feb. 24, 2012 in Burlingame, Calif. Del Beccaro is trying to rebrand the damaged GOP name in the state. Since taking the helm of the party last year, Del Beccaro has held town hall meetings with Hispanic voters and is trying to keep Republican candidates focused on issues such as state spending that he says will help them win elections this year. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., greets young Hispanic voters at a Nevada Democratic Party "Pledge to Caucus" event, Friday, Nov. 11, 2011, in Las Vegas. Campaign staff and volunteers for President Barack Obama are pushing the Hispanic vote in swing states like Nevada, which can help congressional candidates like Berkley in her run for re-election.(AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
In this photo taken Friday, Jan. 20, 2012, Herman Echevarria enjoys a Cuban coffee as he talks to a friend in Miami. Echevarria, a Cuban-American and Republican, is the CEO of a Miami-based bilingual advertising agency. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's promise to veto a measure that would create a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants threatens to turn off some Hispanic voters.
In this Friday, June 29, 2012 photo, volunteers for President Barack Obama's reelection campaign get fliers ready as they work to register new voters prior to canvassing a heavily Latino neighborhood in Phoenix. Across the country both political parties have been courting the Latino vote, the nation's fastest-growing minority group.(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
Paula Lee, at left, of Sacramento, Calif., gives voting information to Danette Erickson, of La Crescenta, Calif., during the California Republican Party convention Friday, Feb. 24, 2012 in Burlingame, Calif. The chairman of the California Republican Party is trying to rebrand the damaged GOP name in the state. Since taking the helm of the party last year, Tom Del Beccaro has held town hall meetings with Hispanic voters and is trying to keep Republican candidates focused on issues such as state spending that he says will help them win elections this year. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
In this Friday, June 29, 2012 photo, Brian Conklin, far right, a regional campaign director for the reelection of President Barack Obama, briefs volunteers about registering new voters prior to them canvassing a heavily Latino neighborhood in Phoenix. Across the country both political parties have been courting the Latino vote, the nation's fastest-growing minority group.(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
In this Friday, June 29, 2012 photo, Brian Conklin, left, a regional campaign director for President Barack Obama's reelection campaign, briefs volunteers Caroline Alcaida, right, and Sheila Morris before they head out of the campaign office to register new voters as they canvass in a heavily Latino neighborhood in Phoenix. Across the country, both political parties have been courting the Latino vote, the nation's fastest-growing minority group. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
In this Friday, June 29, 2012 photo, Hector Acuna, a volunteer for President Barack Obama's reelection campaign, joins about a dozen others as they are briefed on how to register new voters prior to canvassing in a heavily Latino neighborhood in Phoenix. Across the country both political parties have been courting the Latino vote, the nation's fastest-growing minority group. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
FILE - In this May 10, 2011, file photo President Barack Obama looks towards Mexico during a stop at the Bridge of America Cargo Facility in El Paso, on a as visit to the border to speak about immigration reform. A year before the 2012 presidential election, Hispanic voters face a choice: continue to support Obama despite being disproportionately hurt by the economic downturn or turn to Republicans at a time when many GOP presidential hopefuls have taken a hard line on immigration. Obama kicks off a three-day West coast trip on Monday in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)
FILE - In this Feb. 18, 2010, file photo President Barack Obama greets Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., right, during a fundraiser for Bennet in Denver. If you want a sense of how Obama's campaign team intends to win in the West, look no further than how Bennet kept his Senate seat last year: appointed to the seat in 2009, he won a full term by turning the campaign into a "choice" instead of a referendum on his year in the Senate; he painted his opponent as out-of-step with voters, and used strong fundraising to blanket the airwaves and build a massive ground game to turn out Hispanics, young voters and women squeezed by the economic downturn. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)