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National

Latino Community Fund Aims To Empower More To Vote In Georgia's Runoff Elections

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

A record number of people have voted in Georgia's two Senate runoff elections that will determine control of the upper chamber of Congress. Over 3 million people have already cast their ballots in that state ahead of Tuesday's race. And over 100,000 of them are new voters who did not participate in the general election last year. Who wins will hinge on who shows up at the polls in a state that narrowly went for Joe Biden in November. Joining us now to talk about that is someone heavily involved in getting out the Latino vote. Michelle Zuluaga is with the Latino Community Fund Georgia, and she's on the line from Alpharetta, Ga. Welcome to the program.

MICHELLE ZULUAGA: Hi, Lulu. Happy to be here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: OK, tell me what this has looked like for you over the past few weeks. How have you been trying to get out the vote?

ZULUAGA: Well, we focus our efforts on a campaign called Latinos for Democracy, where we give training and resources to smaller, Latino-led organizations throughout Georgia. And we have been doing text banking, sending out mailers, doing literature drops. Just with the general elections and runoffs alone, we have texted over a million Georgians. So we're pretty happy with everything that we've done so far.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. Your organization is nonpartisan. Incumbent GOP senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue are running against Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, respectively. We know that 3% of Georgia's voters in November were Latino. That's a small number, but analysts believe their vote is crucial. Why?

ZULUAGA: Our community is growing, and more and more of Latinos are becoming eligible to vote. Latinos are very much a decisive factor because we are very young, and we're just becoming more and more present with the political process, which is really what we focus on in our nonpartisan efforts.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What have been some of the challenges, though, of reaching out to the Latino community in particular? I mean, there was a huge push in November. I imagine people just might be tired of voting and hearing about voting.

ZULUAGA: There are a couple of things. First is language access. We try to keep as many volunteers and people on staff to be bilingual. However, not everybody gets that language access when they have outreach. So if there's a voter who's just become a naturalized citizen and isn't familiar with the process but goes to a full all-English location to vote, it's a bit difficult for them. That's why we developed our election protection program - is to deal with that. Secondly, this is more of a cultural impact over the years. Latinos - we've come to this beautiful country for opportunity and all that stuff, but a lot of people in our community are also escaping more corrupt governments - sometimes violent governments. That feeling towards government doesn't disappear just because you live in a new country, right?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: As was finally realized last November, but among Latinos has been known for quite some time, Latinos do vote for both parties. What are the issues that are motivating Latinos in Georgia? Especially since, yes, this election has national ramifications with control of the Senate, but it is an election for senators who will represent the state.

ZULUAGA: One - it is our health and the pandemic. Latinos don't have access to health care as maybe a lot of other groups and ethnicities do. And a lot of people in the Latino community are in the front lines. You know, we're working in restaurants and hospitals, in somebody's house, et cetera, et cetera. So this has impacted our community a lot. Secondly, immigration - with immigration policy getting more and more strict, that has worried our community, as well. And then, of course, the economy - you know, we come here for opportunity. We come here to get an education, to be financially stable. So I would say those are the three biggest things that are in the Latino mind.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I understand voting is personal for you. Can you tell me a little bit of your own story?

ZULUAGA: Absolutely. Back in 2002, my father was voluntarily deported. And then in 2004, my mom was voluntarily deported. And that's when I ended up living in Colombia myself. I am Colombian. I lived in South America for many years. When I came back, my parents basically told me, hey, we can't afford your college. You have American citizenship. You have that golden ticket. You know, go and make the most out of it. I was sent when I was 18. However, when I came back, my brother was voluntarily deported a couple months later. So it's been about 10 years where we've all lived in different countries. And again, these policies have really impacted our families. And my story isn't unique. This happens throughout the Latino community all the time. And I do truly believe that this can change if we go out there, if we're civically active because more and more and more of the Latino vote is becoming more and more decisive. And we're seeing that now with the changes that are happening at the local, state and federal level.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Michelle, there are 100,000 new voters who have come out so far in this election, as I mentioned. Why do you think that is?

ZULUAGA: We are in a very decisive point in history - politically, socially, economically - but I would also say the pandemic has really hit people quite hard. We want to move forward, and we want to make sure that everybody that we love - friends and family - come out alive. So I would say that the pandemic is a very big one. And then also to see that change is possible when people go out and vote. I think that that definitely motivated so many people, and we're very happy about that. So people are seeing the change that they feel.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That is Michelle Zuluaga with the Latino Community Fund. Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.