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Latinos Expected to Play Key Role in US Election  - 2004-09-22


The latest U.S. census data confirm that Latinos now comprise the second largest population group in the United States accounting for nearly one in every seven residents. It's a diverse group, including Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Central Americans. Together, they are expected to play a key role in this year's presidential election, especially in the so-called "battleground states" of Arizona, Florida and New Mexico each with large Hispanic populations. Several organizations, led by the National Association of Latino-Elected Officials (NALEO) gathered in Washington to send a message to their fellow Latinos that "every vote counts."

Vamos Ve y Vota. That's Spanish for "Let's Go Vote." And it's the message that Arturo Vargas, director of the NALEO educational fund, hopes more Latinos will heed.

"Six million Latinos voted in the 2000 election," he said. "We're projecting [this year] seven million some have it eight or nine million. There are 16 million eligible to vote. Part of what we want to make sure is that people have the information so they can participate."

Joining Mr. Vargas and NALEO in an effort to encourage Latinos to go to the ballot box was Tisha Tallman, Southeast Region attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

"It's an initiative that will provide information regarding voters' rights and responsibilities specifically for Latinos in English and Spanish," said Ms. Tallman. "It will also have a component that will serve as a means for individuals to report any violations they believe have occurred in polling places up to one week following the general election."

Voting irregularities such as those that occurred in the 2000 U.S. presidential election are of special concern for Ms. Tallman. She says that despite recent Congressional legislation on election reform, more needs to be done to stop unwarranted requests for voter identification and improper denial of language assistance. "Certainly we know of the documented abuses that occurred in Florida in the general election of 2000," she said. "So the Help America Vote Act of 2002 was passed to address some of those abuses. Following that passage and implementation, we still see some abuses that occurred in the 2004 primaries. Largely, we believe the abuses occurred because of the lack of education of poll watchers. And the Help America Vote Act has caused some confusion among voters and poll workers."

To eliminate some of that confusion, Arturo Vargas says the National Association of Latino Elected Officials has established a new phone hotline to help Hispanic voters answer questions about the voting process. It's 1-888-Ve-Y-Vota (Go Vote).

"It's designed to make sure Latino voters have access to information so they can vote," said Arturo Vargas. "People will be able to call toll-free from throughout the country to receive information on how to register to vote, where to vote where the polling places are - and most importantly, if they encountered any problem in voting. They can report that and we'll have lawyers at the ready to take action. We'll [also] be providing information on the entire voting process and assuring folks regardless of what technology they have whether punch cards, computers or fill-in-the-blank. Whatever technology, we'll be ready to provide information so that everybody has free access to vote."

Arturo Vargas, director of the NALEO educational fund. He says the 16 million Latinos eligible to vote are expected to do so in record numbers this November and to have a major impact on the outcome of this election.

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