CALDWELL — Less than a week before Election Day, a small group of students gathered in a Caldwell paletería to make a game plan.
Ruby Mendez-Mota, an ACLU of Idaho advocacy fellow, raised her voice to talk over the Mexican soap opera blaring from the television over her head, handing out "Know Your Rights" materials to the dozen Caldwell High School students in attendance. All were members of their school's Future Hispanic Leaders of America club and there to participate in the ACLU of Idaho's "Trick or Vote" event. Only one student was old enough to vote on Nov. 6, but all were there to make sure others in their community could.
"They understand the power — that when we move and encourage our community to vote, they’re being represented through those votes," Mendez-Mota said. "I think there’s a lot of power for them to be able to encourage their fellow community to go out to vote."
More than 29 million Latinos are eligible to vote this election, according to the Pew Research Center, making up 12.8 percent of all eligible voters nationwide. Almost 8 percent of Idaho's eligible voters are Hispanic or Latino — about 95,000 Latinos who can vote in the midterms this year.
Kathy Griesmyer, policy director for ACLU of Idaho, led a smaller group of bilingual volunteers through Garden City the same day. She said the ACLU of Idaho has seen only a few campaigns distribute materials in Spanish or make extended outreach efforts to large Latino communities in Idaho.
“I think there’s a lot of things that candidates and organizations should be doing to connect with this community — and that takes investment and that takes relationship building," Griesmyer said.
In July, Conservation Voters for Idaho (CVI) hired a voting rights associate, Antonio Hernandez, to work on voter engagement in Idaho's Latino and Hispanic communities. Hernandez said in his personal experience, campaigns make very little effort to follow up with the Latino or Spanish-speaking residents they encounter in get-out-the-vote efforts. Instead, they check the box for "other language" and move on to the next name on the list.
"Why is it that my parents never got their door knocked? I can guarantee you my family's phone is not ringing," Hernandez said. "People aren't really interested in investing."
The organization's five new bilingual phone bankers have each logged several hours a day of phone calls to Idaho Latinos since Oct. 1. They're projected to make 12,000 phone calls and send voter information to more than 36,000 people in Idaho by Election Day.
The group focused heavily on voting by mail, which Hernandez said performs well in Idaho and can be less daunting for first-time voters. CVI has already received roughly 2,000 requests to get absentee ballot materials from members of Idaho's Latino community.
While the conservation connection may seem odd, Hernandez said he believes Latino-Americans are natural conservationists.
"We're trying to create a healthy democracy to help us protect the environment," Hernandez said. "The Latino community is an important part of that."
Hernandez said he and CVI tried to build a program that would reach eligible voters like his family members, whose top priorities may not revolve around immigration. Some of that means making sure Latino voters get a chance to talk to someone with a similar background and ask questions about registering to vote, filling out absentee ballots, or locating voting precincts they may be embarrassed to ask elections staff.
"My parents were more concerned about putting food on the table and making sure they had a job the next day than teaching me about voting," Hernandez said. "It just wasn't a factor."
Hernandez, who led the Caldwell canvassing event with Mendez-Mota, said while he's had numerous positive interactions with older voters like his parents, the younger generation was much more enthusiastic.
The Idaho Press joined the Caldwell High School students as they knocked on doors for two hours in a small Caldwell subdivision, dodging Halloween decorations, trick-or-treaters and barking dogs. Some stumbled over the script, but all took turns doing their part: reminding voters to exercise their right to vote and leaving them information about how to do it. Several students said this was the first time they had ever really talked to people about voting.
“A lot of people are avoiding it, or wondering like, why should I do that," said Abram Olvera, 18. "But your voice matters.”