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As Texas’ demographics continue to change and an election cycle with a newly drawn political map begins, the Rio Grande Valley has received more national attention.
The Republican Party made gains over the last two election cycles in the historically blue Rio Grande Valley, and multiple congressional districts that run through the region will be contested in 2022, promising to bring more change to that political landscape.
But the Valley’s status as a political hotspot contrasts with the very practical challenge of historically low voter turnout.
On a recent stop there, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke acknowledged that while regions like the Valley across the state will be important on election day, getting people to the polls in those areas will be one of the focal points of his campaign.
“We have no hope of energizing and connecting with these voters, if we do not show up where they are,” said O’Rourke. “There are 7 million eligible voters who didn’t participate in last year’s election, they’re here in these communities. On day three of this campaign, I’m here in McAllen. On day four of this campaign, I’m going to be in Brownsville.”
Gov. Greg Abbott, who is running for a third term as governor against O’Rourke also traveled to the Rio Grande Valley to launch his campaign and share his strategy to win a majority of the Latino votes in the region and across the state. In 2018, Abbott won 42% of the Latino vote in Texas.
In the 2020 general election, 66% of Texas’ registered voters cast a ballot on election day and throughout early voting. But in Hidalgo County, only 56% of registered voters participated in that election. This contrast increases when considering that only 45% of people in Hidalgo County were registered to vote in comparison with 58.6% of Texans in that election.
Overall, this means three in four people in Hidalgo County alone, including unregistered voters, did not participate in 2020. That’s about 650,000 potential votes that were never cast in just one Rio Grande Valley county.
This pattern holds true for local elections in the region as well. When the City of McAllen chose a new mayor in May, fewer than 14,000 people cast a ballot in a city of 141,968 (2019) registered and unregistered voters. That’s a total participation rate of about 10%.
Cecilia Balli, a writer, researcher and cultural anthropologist, appeared at the Mexican American Legislative Caucus in November to present the results of a study looking at Latinos’ attitudes toward voting in Texas.
She explained that, aside from a lack of public discourse on candidates and local issues, the most common reason for voter nonparticipation in the Valley was perceived political corruption.
“In the Rio Grande Valley, we had a sense that politics are controlled by very few people. High levels of public corruption across the board from school districts to judicial offices,” Balli reported to the caucus. “And then all that combined with extreme poverty makes a lot of people doubt that they can make a difference by voting.”
Adrienne Peña Garza, the chair of the Hidalgo County Republican Party, was a key collaborator in the recent launch of several GOP community centers in Hidalgo and Cameron counties.
She said that Balli’s research hits a nerve because decades of strong local Democratic influence have created a historically one-party region that has heightened that sense of apathy in local voters.
“There is an unlevel playing field when it comes to Republicans,” said Garza. “If there was a forum, I hope Republicans get included because that’s another thing that’s really, really discouraging is that we have good candidates. They’re courageous. They love this community just as much as the Democrats do. If there’s a forum and they’re not invited, that’s a disservice to this community.”
Nedra Kinerk said leaders in the region recognize the politically opportune moment and hear the public need for more discussion on candidates–including Republican ones.
Kinerk is the co-founder of Futuro RGV, a quality of life advocacy group made up of a local coalition of government agencies, businesses and nonprofit organizations in the Valley.
She says the nonpartisan group plans to livestream candidate forums in the region throughout this year’s election cycle in the hopes of increasing voter participation.
“We aren’t taken seriously by either political party and we lose a great deal of funding for projects that we need to have,” said Kinerk about nonvoters in her county on both sides of the aisle. “So it’s an exciting time, but we have to make sure our citizens rise to the challenge and the opportunity.”
Lupe Votes, a recently launched nonprofit based in the Rio Grande Valley, will also make getting more people to the polls in 2022 a top priority.
Jacqueline Arias, a civic engagement organizer for Lupe Votes, said they are very familiar with the reasons behind low voter turnout in the region.
“We’ve all heard the tios and abuelos talk about ‘la corrupción,’” said Arias. “We see that many people are disenfranchised not just by corruption, but by politicians from both parties who make promises or talk about issues but don’t execute.”
Advocacy groups from outside the region are also investing in changing voter turnout in the Valley.
Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, who founded the Texas nonprofit Jolt in 2016 to mobilize young Latino voters, is now the executive director of the national organization NextGen.
Last year, NextGen launched what it claims will be “the biggest youth voter mobilization campaign ever” in the state.
“South Texas has one of the highest unregistered youth populations in the state,” explained Ramirez. “So much of what gets determined across the state happens here and their issues need to be at the forefront. The only way you make that happen is by investing in their political power and that’s exactly what we’re doing.”
NextGen plans to spend $16 million in the 2022 election cycle to mobilize young unregistered voters in the Valley and similar regions across Texas.