Young and politically empowered in Arizona

Latino canvassers push to get out the vote.

This story is a part of our ongoing series, Gen Z West, exploring what life is like for youth in the Western United States and how this emerging generation shapes the region.

When Fhernanda Ortiz was 16, an organizer from the Arizona Center for Empowerment, or ACE, a social justice organization, spoke at her high school. After the talk, Ortiz signed up for a six-week political education course run by ACE in partnership with Living United for Change in Arizona (LUCHA), its sister organization. There, she learned about the issues impacting her community, including discrimination and anti-immigrant policies; she even attended an Operation Streamline hearing in Tucson, where dozens of shackled, undocumented immigrants appeared before a judge for criminal prosecution. 


In Phoenix, where she lives, Ortiz learned how to exercise her political rights. “I didn’t know back then that I could go to the state Capitol and listen to a hearing, or watch state representatives,” she said in a video call in July. “When Jeff Flake was senator, I didn’t know I could go to his office, or write a letter. That was crazy to me.”

“When Jeff Flake was senator, I didn’t know I could go to his office, or write a letter. That was crazy to me.”

Fhernanda Ortiz, an organizer with the Arizona Center for Empowerment, is now meeting daily with the team she leads from her home in Phoenix.
Roberto (Bear) Guerra/High Country News

By the 2018 midterms, Ortiz was volunteering as a canvasser. As the registration deadline neared, which is a month before Election Day in Arizona, she and other teens her age spent summer evenings with clipboards and registration forms in hand, approaching people in the parking lots of supermarkets and gas stations. The gas station “was my best place, actually,” Ortiz said. While people filled up their tanks, she had ample time to convince them to register.

Like many U.S. university students, Ortiz, who is now 19, attends classes remotely. In her spare time, though, she leads her own team of young Latinos to register voters. The work looks very different from 2018, when Ortiz herself was a canvasser whose team focused on face-to-face interactions. Now, most of their time is spent at home, running through official lists of eligible voters and making phone calls.

At their weekly video chats, Ortiz and her team discuss strategies for keeping people on the phone, role-playing how calls might go, and working on alternative ways for reaching potential voters, such as sending out mass texts and using social media messenger services. This virtual canvassing isn’t easy. “When you are out there, you can be with someone until they say like the fifth, ‘No,’ ” Ortiz said. “You can follow them to their car and try and convince them in those couple of minutes. It’s super easy. Now, people can just hang up. Some of my folks have had really bad conversations.”

Volunteers for Living United for Change in Arizona (LUCHA) prepare for an early September canvassing event in Tucson.
Roberto (Bear) Guerra/High Country News

Organizers like Ortiz are part of a growing cohort of politically engaged young Latinos in Arizona. Many will be eligible to vote for the first time in the upcoming election. They’ve already secured victories in their state, helping elect Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D, in the midterms, and many are determined, despite the pandemic, to get out the vote for the presidential election.

Shawn Burruel displays one of LUCHA’s fliers at a canvassing event in September.
Roberto (Bear) Guerra/High Country News

THE NUMBER OF POTENTIAL Latino voters has increased, but so far they haven’t fully participated — at least not in past presidential elections. This year could be different, according to Joseph Garcia, executive director of the Chicanos por La Causa Action Fund, a nonprofit advocacy organization focused on Latino voter engagement, among other initiatives. “Latinos are a very young population here in Arizona, and as a result, in past years many Latinos weren’t old enough to vote, and their parents (perhaps one, and in some cases both) were ineligible to vote because they weren’t U.S. citizens or naturalized,” he said.

In Arizona, though, a growing number of Latinos like Ortiz have reached voting age; in fact, 24% of eligible voters in the state are Latino, according to the Pew Research Center. “That has only happened in the past few years — there are enough Latinos to make a difference,” Garcia said. Approximately 100,000 young Latinos have become eligible in Arizona since the 2018 elections, he said, and young Latino voters tend to be progressive, making them a possible factor in Bernie Sanders’ success in Nevada’s primaries. Nationwide, nearly 2 million Latino citizens will have turned 18 and be newly eligible to vote in the November election. Six of the 12 states with the highest number of registered Latino voters are in the Western United States: Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Washington, according to Unidos U.S., a Latino nonprofit advocacy organization.

Across any demographic, however, getting young people to vote is a challenge. That is why grassroots groups like ACE and LUCHA have been reaching out to young people through their political education initiatives, even before they are eligible to vote. For example, One Arizona, a nonpartisan coalition of organizations that formed in the wake of SB 1070, the controversial “Show Me Your Papers Law” that encouraged racial profiling, has collaborated since 2016 with the Phoenix Union High School District. The group registers high school students through a series of voter education initiatives.

Araceli Villezcas, a program coordinator for One Arizona, takes a break from work at her home in Phoenix, Arizona.
Roberto (Bear) Guerra/High Country News

But the pandemic has changed things. After COVID-19 shut down schools early this spring, some of those opportunities vanished. “We’ve had to pivot,” Araceli Villezcas, a program coordinator with One Arizona, said. “We completely missed out on (registering voters at) graduation.” Now that they’ve had a summer to strategize, Villezcas and other organizers are preparing virtual registration drives through their Youth Power Coalition, communicating with high school classes via videoconference calls.

Using a slide presentation, someone like Villezcas will show teens how to access the state’s voter registration site, then walk them through the process in real time. “By the end of the call, the students that are eligible to vote will have registered,” Villezcas said. Before Election Day, organizers will circle back to the newly registered students to make sure they have a plan to get their ballots in.

“If we can get young Latino voters to vote, they are going to vote the rest of their lives.”

LUCHA community organizer Faith Ramon dons a mask before canvassing in Tucson, Arizona, in early September.
Roberto (Bear) Guerra/High Country News

For democracy advocates, this work is essential for turning out the vote, especially given the many barriers facing Latino voters. These include age (the median age of Latinos is just 30 compared to 44 for non-Latino whites, and historically, young people haven’t voted in the same numbers as other age groups); poverty (lower-income people who depend on hourly wages can’t always take time off from work to go to the polls); and typically lower education levels (according to the U.S. Census Bureau, individuals without a high school diploma were less likely to vote in 2018). These factors may help explain why less than half of eligible Latino voters in Arizona cast a ballot in the 2016 presidential election. The state also has a long history of disenfranchising communities of color at the ballot box. But organizers are optimistic: “If we can get young Latino voters to vote, they are going to vote the rest of their lives,” Garcia said.

For Villezcas, the stakes for families and communities are high. She grew up in Phoenix protesting immigration enforcement with her father, and she remembers having a family member deported. So in high school, when a friend asked her if she wanted to register voters, she decided to try it. “I ended up really loving it,” Villezcas said. “Even though I couldn’t vote, it felt really good, like we were taking our power back.” That was nearly 10 years ago, and now getting out the vote is her full-time job.  Over the years, Villezcas has grown accustomed to the election question she is most often asked: Is this the year Arizona changes? “We have done so much work, and it is not for nothing,” she always replies. “Arizona has already changed so much!”    

A canvasser from the grassroots organization Living United for Change in Arizona (LUCHA) leaves a flier encouraging residents in Tucson’s primarily Latino Mission Manor neighborhood to vote.
Roberto (Bear) Guerra/High Country News

Jessica Kutz is an assistant editor for High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor