09/10/2012 01:08 pm ET Updated Nov 10, 2012

Voter Apathy and Blue-State Blues: On the Latino Responsibility to Vote

The last bit of confetti has been swept from convention centers in Tampa and Charlotte, but the media circus around the Latino presence at both the RNC and DNC continues: Speculation over how the Latino vote will or will not influence outcomes in swing states like Nevada, Florida, and Colorado. Philosophizing over what polar opposites like Marco Rubio and Julián Castro could possibly have in common besides a Latino surname. Debate over what it means to be a Latino politician--or a Latino in general, at least linguistically. Surprise over the very existence of the erstwhile "exotic" species that is a Latino Republican.

The media spotlight is both flattering and pandering, but none of this is news to the Latino advocacy community. Latino advocates have worked hard to promote Latino voter registration and turnout over the past decade, and have long cautioned candidates on both sides of the aisle not to underestimate our political complexity. But conventions, keynotes, and headlines aside, the hard truth is that both parties still have a long way to go in winning the Latino vote--or in even convincing them to come out to vote in the first place.

I've been vocal about a Latino "uneasiness" in casting a vote for Obama, given the record number of immigrants deported under his watch, despite his recent executive order around Deferred Action for undocumented youth. Latino support for the Republican Romney seems equally half-hearted, given his party's talk of electric border fences, constitutional amendments on birthright citizenship, and celebration of self-deportation. It is important to also note that Latino support for neither candidate will be decided solely on their immigration platform and that there are Latinos for whom a promise of even tougher enforcement of our immigration rules represents a step forward.

The Latino voting bloc is nuanced, and I don't pretend that my perspective is representative of that of my fellow community members. But the bottom line in the in the circles I run in is that people are frustrated--and even worse, apathetic. The former is alarming, but the latter smacks of disaster, especially in non-swing states like my native Illinois.

I'm hard-pressed to conjure a more true-blue place than Illinois, home of Obama's hometown of Chicago and generations of die-hard Democrats. This has the potential to wreak havoc on voter turnout numbers, especially when neither candidate is inspiring passion: "Illinois will go blue regardless of my vote," the mental loop of voter apathy convinces us, "why even bother?"

But voters--and particularly Latino voters, I'd argue--have a responsibility to "bother." We have a responsibility to our children and youth--37,000 young Latinos will turn 18 this year in Illinois, and that number is still higher in other states--to set a civic example. We have a responsibility to those who have no vote--such as the one-million-plus, still-undocumented DREAMers in our midst--to flex our political muscle. We also have a responsibility to ourselves. As the cliché goes, there is strength in numbers. If the political worth of a community is judged--rightly or wrongly--by the numbers it turns out on Election Day, the 350,000 or so Illinois Latino voters that might consider staying home are doing harm to our hard-earned collective clout.

Partisan politics aside, there was a palpable pride in witnessing the shine of Latino rising stars like Castro and Rubio in the high-profile events of the past weeks. The Latino community is maturing into a political force of reckoning, but we can't be content with a keynote. Our political representation--from school boards to state houses to someday at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue--must match our swelling numbers. That representation is built, is earned, with our vote.

Skeptics scoff that the "sleeping giant" that is the Latino vote is likely to doze right through this election, and remain sleeping for many elections to come. We have a responsibility to prove those skeptics--and those skeptics, too often, are ourselves--wrong, starting on November 6.