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Finding New Ways To Reach Latino Voters On Long Island

On a recent Sunday, a band of volunteers assembled at a Panera Bread in Hampton Bays. They call themselves the Brookhaven Latino Voter Project. Every weekend for the last two months they’ve been knocking on doors registering voters. Specifically, they’re reaching out to Spanish speakers from Latin America.

EJ Lopez, one of the group’s founders, started with Census maps online. From there, the Suffolk Democratic Party gave him voter rolls. Lopez merged the data and focused on streets where he saw lots of Latino names.

"Well if there are three or four Latinos on a block, you can assume that’s a heavy Latino population," Lopez said. "Because those are people who are registered to vote. So then there’s got to be a ton who aren’t registered to vote."

Lopez and his co-organizer, Julio Truijllo, were motivated to start registering Latino voters after attending a primary debate earlier this year for the Democrats trying to unseat Republican Congressman Lee Zeldin, who’s seeking a third term.

Lopez remembered seeing hundreds of people in the room. "But me and Julio and the waiter and the busboy, we’re the only Latinos in the whole room."

So Lopez messaged the organizer to complain.

"And the guy wrote me back and said, 'If you’re such an expert, why don’t you do something about it?'"

He launched a Facebook group and started knocking on doors.

Since the last midterm election, Census data show Suffolk County added up to 17,000 Hispanic people. But statistics compiled by political consultant Mike Dawidziak found that of the 100,000 Hispanic residents living in the 1st Congressional District, fewer than 40,000 people with Latino first or last names have registered to vote. Of those, only 9 percent showed up at the polls.

"People like to vote for people who they can identify with," Dawidziak said, "and why they may not participate in the same number is the fewer number of Latino candidates."

While trying to register Latinos to vote, Lopez said his main obstacle was legal status. More than 50,000 Suffolk County residents are undocumented and aren’t eligible to vote. But it didn’t stop him from knocking on doors.

"You’d talk to the wife and she’d say, 'No, I’m not able to register, but my son can,' and the son would pop out of somewhere in the house and we would get him registered," Lopez said.

But volunteers with the Brookhaven Latino Project also found people too afraid to register — even a U.S. citizen.

"I met a woman who was from Puerto Rican who could vote," said volunteer Lisa La Corte. "She was probably in her 70s and she was afraid to vote because she felt that if she put her name on a piece of paper that the government would come to her home and start questioning her."

The Democratic Party on Long Island has helped in the effort to register Latino voters. In addition to giving the canvassers voter data, it donated office supplies and other technology to help in the outreach effort. As a result, Democrats said they registered some 1,400 new Latino voters this summer.

Republicans declined multiple requests to describe their efforts to engage Latinos. Both Congressman Zeldin and Pete King in the 2nd District are known for their law and order stance on immigration — with full support for President Trump’s crackdown on the MS-13 gang on Long Island.

Dawidziak, the political consultant, said before the 2016 presidential election, conventional wisdom was that Latinos would vote for Democrats.

"And then shockingly, Donald Trump does far better in the Latino vote than anybody would have guessed that he would have done."

According to a 2016 CNN exit poll, 28 percent of Latinos voted for Trump. In a survey from the Pew Research Center conducted between July and October of this year, 23 percent of Latinos identify or lean Republican. Sixty percent of those approve of Trump’s job performance.

While canvassing on eastern Long Island, the volunteers for the Brookhaven Latino Voter Project ran into Enrique Castaneda, who's originally from Colombia. He said he's voted for Democrats since 2002, but some of his immigrant friends have not.

Latinos care about lots of different issues, he said in Spanish, and it's very possible that if the economy stays good, they could help give Trump another term in 2020.

Charles is senior reporter focusing on special projects. He has won numerous awards including an IRE award, three SPJ Public Service Awards, and a National Murrow. He was also a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists and Third Coast Director’s Choice Award.