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More Latinos Voted This Election. Are They Turning The Corner On Turnout?

File: A California primary voter shows the Spanish language "I Voted sticker" outside a polling station June 7, 2016. (Photo by Bill Wechter/AFP/Getty Images)
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A new UCLA study suggests turnout among Latino voters jumped in this month's midterm election. So are we seeing a reversal in low turnout among Latinos?

The researchers say that in nearly 40 percent of the precincts where Latinos make up most of the registered voters, the number of ballots cast jumped at least 70 percent. That's in Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties and compared to the last midterms four years ago.

So what drew out these voters?

For 19-year-old college student Fernando Villanueva, a first-time voter, it was immigration.

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"How is it possible that young kids are being separated [from] families? That is one major issue that really had to be stopped," he said, referring to President Trump's "zero tolerance" policies that removed children from parents who crossed the southern border earlier this year.

Anti-immigrant rhetoric from the White House also helped drive Luis Vega, a first-time voter and new citizen, to the polls.

"The president is acting very disrespectful to immigrants," said Vega, 31, of Buena Park, "but also to people of color and to women. So to me, it was very important to actually vote."

Villanueva and Vega were not alone; immigration was a key issue for Latino voters, according to exit polling conducted by Latino Decisions, a firm that researches Latino politics.

The exit polling also showed economy and health care were important topics to Latino voters this year.

Latinos' better showing this election could be a tipping point for a demographic group that previously logged low voter turnout compared to the electorate as a whole.

Latinos voting in this year's election heavily favored certain candidates, including Los Angeles County Sheriff candidate Alex Villanueva, said Sonja Diaz, executive director of UCLA's Latino Policy and Politics Initiative. Villanueva is leading incumbent sheriff Jim McDonnell with many ballots still being counted.

"When they turn out, they can really make a meaningful impact in close-neck races," Diaz said. "I think that the Latino electorate has the capacity to out-perform even themselves in this election as we move forward into 2020."

But while more Latinos appear to have voted, their share of the early vote statewide only reached about 14 percent, even though they make up a quarter of registered voters, said Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data Inc., a bipartisan research company.

Researchers like Mitchell examine trends in early voting -- votes cast by mail or drop-off or in person ahead of the election -- to get a sense of how voters performed before final turnout data becomes available.

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"Latinos continue to essentially underperform their rate of registration," Mitchell said. "But it has less to do with them being Latino and more to do with them being young."

He said the average Latino voter in California is a millennial and more likely to be a renter. Millenials and renters turn out in lower numbers than older homeowners.

Still, in California, Mitchell's preliminary numbers suggest a 75 percent jump in early votes cast by Latinos in California this year, compared to 2014.

That's in line with early-voter estimates from the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, whose numbers suggest early voting by Latinos jumped 73 percent in California and more than doubled nationwide as compared with the last midterm.

Mitchell said more Latinos received mail-in ballots this year than in the previous midterm, which may have helped boost early-vote participation.

As for those millennials, news reports suggest more of them voted this year, too, and so did the electorate as a whole. Nearly half the nation's eligible voters are estimated to have cast ballots last week, the highest participation for a midterm in decades.

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