Eduardo Gallo voted for the first time Tuesday, sliding his ballot into the red ballot drop box in Sunnyside as a smile beamed across his face.
“I’m so happy,” Gallo said later. “I had never voted before, not even in my former country. … It’s really a privilege, and I feel I was happy to do it.”
Gallo, 44, directs a nonprofit in Sunnyside focused on at-risk youth. He became a citizen around five months ago. Gallo was focused on education and community-oriented candidates when filling out his ballot, but his biggest hope was that more people turn out and participate.
“It is important to do it, and we should do it. I hope the new generation does,” Gallo said. “We should be empowering them to vote and to be creative in how we empower them to do it.”
He wasn’t alone as a first-time voter in the Yakima Valley this year. On Monday, Gabriel Gomez Flores walked out of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services building in Yakima a newly minted citizen. He told staff who assisted him with the citizenship process at the nonprofit La Casa Hogar that he wanted to vote.
That same morning, he was a registered voter, dropping his own ballot off at the Yakima County Courthouse.
“I feel emotional,” Gomez Flores said.
He recalled talking to his friends about citizenship and voting: “I thought, ‘If you all can, why can’t I?'”
For the first time, Latinos made up more than half of Yakima County’s population, 50.7%, in the 2020 U.S. Census. The Census Bureau estimates more than 125,000 Yakima County residents identify as Hispanic of Latino.
But there are still thousands of potential new voters out there. While Latino residents make up more than 50% of Yakima County’s population, they make up roughly 27% of registered voters.
Community organizations and the Yakima County Auditor’s Office track voters with Spanish surnames to gauge voter participation in the Latino community. Martha Jiménez, the bilingual program coordinator at the auditor’s office, said 34,491 of 127,476 voters have Spanish surnames.
Those disparities drove community organizations to work on voter turnout this year in Yakima. Turnout for voters with Spanish surnames was 12% in August’s primary election and 13% in the 2021 general election.
As of Thursday, turnout for voters with Spanish surnames was at 26%, a number that will likely change as more ballots are counted. It’s an increase from last year but still lower than the presidential election in 2020 when it was 56% and the last midterm election in 2018 when it was 41%. Numbers won’t be final until the election is certified on Nov. 29.
Canvassers and organizers noted that there was a lack of information and education when it came to this year’s election. Nonpartisan group Poder Latinx was active for the first time in Yakima this year. Its goal was to increase turnout in the Latinx community while not supporting any one candidate.
“If Spanish-speaking communities are having issues, and they can’t communicate those,” the issues or problems will grow, said Renato Mendoza, Poder Latinx’s Washington state director.
Merivet Lomvera canvassed for Poder Latinx in Yakima. She said many people were unaware that there was an election this year, but people were often enthusiastic about nonpartisan education and information.
“We wanted to focus on first time voters — young folks — and nontraditional voters — new citizens, old folks,” Mendoza added.
Poder Latinx canvassers also surveyed community members, asking what issues were important to them. Mendoza said the issues people connected with most were affordable housing, climate change and protecting women’s reproductive rights.
Reproductive rights were on the minds of Jacobo and Star Macias, an uncle and niece from Union Gap who dropped their ballots off at the Yakima County Courthouse on election night.
“It doesn’t make sense that a man should be able to tell me I shouldn’t be on birth control,” Star Macias said.
Both were also concerned with school security and gun violence. Jacobo Macias, who first voted in 2008, added that he supports the Second Amendment — the right to bear arms — but that he worries about loopholes and minors bringing guns onto school property. Star Macias added that she was concerned about her family members who were still in school.
Ana Gúzman also turned in her ballot Tuesday. A farmworker, Gúzman said she cared about infrastructure quality and school security, but she also advocated increased turnout and representation for her community.
“An example, Dulce Gutierrez, is a person who has done good work in the community, she is a person who should have this seat,” Gúzman said in Spanish. “I know that she has represented us well.”
Voters and organizers noted that Gutierrez’s candidacy was a driver for some Spanish speaking and Latino voters. As of Thursday, Gutierrez, a Democrat, had accumulated 42% of the vote to Republican Kyle Curtis’ 58%.
Gutierrez, a former City Council member, was running for a spot on the recently redistricted county commission to represent much of the city of Yakima. The county commission boundaries were redrawn and procedures were revamped after a lawsuit filed by OneAmerica alleged that at-large elections for county commissioners disenfranchised Latinos.
The redistricting spurred activity from organizations. Audel Ramirez, the OneAmerica organizer in Yakima, was focused on education and increasing turnout leading up to the election. In a news conference after the election, Ramirez voiced support for Gutierrez.
“Now that we’ve won and our election laws have changed, we’re experiencing our first election in history in Yakima County with a real shot at electing some of our Latino community members,” Ramirez said.
OneAmerica leaders noted that there was still a need for education about candidates and the election process in the Latino community. They said that this election was a first step and that they hoped to see increased change over time.
“Just the increase in voter engagement and people stepping into their power and realizing they have a voice, that, for us, is a win, regardless of if we win the election or not,” Ramirez said. “We will continue to do work and build on that.”
OneAmerica’s efforts to elect Latino representatives are connected to OneAmerica Votes, the organization’s political group. Ramirez said the organization would support candidates who align with their political platform supporting immigrant values and initiatives, and who were connected with the community.
Engaging with issues
Elpidia Saavedra, a conservative City Council member in Toppenish, said she was surprised by the low turnout generally in Yakima County given inflation and rising crime rates. She expected more folks, including Latino voters, to engage given those issues.
“In our Valley, turnout is so poor, especially when it’s less than 40%,” Saavedra said. “I’m not sure what people are waiting for.”
Saavedra’s concerns with representation were focused on the state level; she said voters in wealthier, westside communities might be insulated from economic issues like inflation.
On a local level, Saavedra said Latino voters engage with issues around religion and family values. She hopes to see more Latino and Hispanic leaders as long as they work with others and serve the public.
“We have to be willing to work together with people that we’re connected to in those positions,” Saavedra said. “If people understand that, it would be awesome to have more Hispanics and Latinos in elected positions.”
Community organizations like Poder Latinx and OneAmerica also said they want to help community leaders. But building voter engagement can be a tall mountain to climb, regardless of political affiliation.
Mendoza and Lomvera, who work with nonpartisan Poder Latinx, said that many voters were unaware of redistricting. He’s called for more voter outreach from the city and county when it comes to education.
Jiménez, who works for the county, said the auditor’s office is actively engaging Latino voters. She said several staff members are bilingual and they have attended health fairs and school events to provide information. Jiménez added that the auditor’s office has collaborated with local organizations, like community-based nonprofit La Casa Hogar, to allow tours and connect with residents.
“This summer we’ve been pretty active in the community, attending events,” she said. “We have a close collaboration with (Spanish-language radio station) KDNA to connect with the community, with La Casa Hogar.”
Kate Smith contributed reporting to this article. Jasper Kenzo Sundeen’s reporting for the Yakima Herald-Republic is possible with support from Report for America and community members.