Students reach out to Latino voters

Spanish-speaking voters in New Haven’s Ward 15 got a helping hand from Yale students on election day, as Yale volunteers spent the day working to increase voter turnout in the predominantly Latino neighborhood.

Spanish-speaking students made both a morning and an evening trip to the ward, which includes part of Fair Haven, to reach out to members of the community they said are often overlooked due to language barriers. It is estimated that over 60 percent of the ward’s residents are Latino — half of whom cannot speak English.

Whitney Haring-Smith ’07, the organizer of the effort and a staff member on New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr.’s gubernatorial campaign, said the drive resembled traditional voter turnout efforts, with students going from door to door encouraging residents to come out to vote. As the majority of residents in Ward 15 vote Democratic, he said, the point of the effort was to increase voter turnout for John DeStefano Jr., who eventually lost the gubernatorial election to incumbent M. Jodi Rell.

“For this ward, it’s not a question of winning but a question of margin,” he said.

DeStefano’s campaign manager Henry Fernandez LAW ’94 said the ward was a blind-run district, meaning that an increase of random voters would almost certainly help Democratic candidates. According to Fernandez, 75 percent of Ward 15 voters were expected to vote for Democrats based on party affiliation rather than candidates’ specific platforms. Out of the approximately 1,000 registered voters in the Ward, he said, perhaps only 50 would call themselves Republican.

Volunteers based their operations out of a Fair Haven laundromat. From a folding table, Fernandez dispatched volunteers to canvass neighborhoods by going door-to-door and to make last-minute phone calls to potential voters.

The mayor’s deputy chief of staff Pierrette Silverman said that unlike more affluent wards, Ward 15 required a distinct campaigning approach focusing on broad communication with the community to raise awareness about the elections and about the Democratic candidate.

“It’s a very different ward compared to other wards,” Silverman said. “This ward has really low voter turnout, and there are a lot of transient folks.”

Mary Reynolds GRD ’07, who joined the door-to-door effort, said she found it difficult to identify potential voters as she made her way through the neighborhoods because of the higher turnover rate among Ward 15 residents. Because people are always moving in and out of the ward, she said, the contact information for many registered voters was out of date.

Despite the students’ efforts, the staff at the Lombard St. Firehouse polling station did not notice an increase in voter response.

“We’ve had about 200 all day at this one machine,” said Assistant Registrar Michael Novella. “That’s only ten per hour. Kind of low.”

JUNTA, a New Haven nonprofit that advocates the rights of Latino residents, conducted a non-partisan registration drive throughout the summer to increase political participation in Spanish-speaking communities. JUNTA Program Coordinator for Economic Development Laura Huizar ’06 said students and community members had set up tables in front of a major supermarket, which she called a “big gathering place” for the Latino community.

“We made sure we were there every Saturday from July to the last week that people could register,” she said. “It wasn’t always registering people, but explaining when the elections were and just clearing up questions. … They feel a little left out, and I guess uninformed about what’s going on.”

When the polls closed at eight o’clock, 457 votes were counted at the Ward 15 voting center.

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