The effectiveness of America’s system of democratic representation, in practice, turns on broad participation. Yet only about 60 percent of voting eligible Americans cast their vote in presidential elections. This number is nearly cut in half in off-year elections (about 36 percent), and participation in local elections is even lower. This lack of electoral engagement does not fall equally across racial and ethnic subgroups. Latinos, for one, are particularly underrepresented at polling booths across the country. In 2016, eligible Latino voters were about 20 percentage points less likely to vote than their White counterparts, and about 13 percentage points less likely to vote than their Black counterparts.
This fall, a group of 24 University of Michigan undergraduate students sought to explore this disparity and pinpoint what, if anything, works to increase Latino political participation. In the class, entitled The Politics of Latinidad, CPS Faculty Associate and U-M Political Science Professor Mara Ostfeld taught her students how to measure public opinion and challenged them to analyze the factors that affect Latino political participation.
Today, more than 50,000 Latinos live in Detroit and a majority of them reside in City Council District 6 in Southwest Detroit which is precisely where this course focused. The students began by studying the history of Latinos in Southeast Michigan and exploring how Latinos played critical roles in the city’s development dating back to before World War I. They analyzed broad trends in Latino public opinion, and considered how and why these patterns might be similar or different in Detroit. Students then designed their own pre-election polls to take into the field.
In order to understand what affects voter turnout, students surveyed over 300 residents of Southwest Detroit to measure the issues that were most important to them.
The results illustrate some powerful patterns. Among the issues that the residents found most important, immigration and crime stood out. Forty-nine and 45 percent of Latinos listed immigration and crime, respectively, as issues of particular concern, with only 31 percent of residents saying that they felt safe in their own home.
Latinos in Southwest Detroit feel extremely high levels of discrimination. Seventy percent of Latinos surveyed said they felt Latinos face “a great deal” of discrimination. This significantly exceeds the roughly half of Latinos nationwide who say they have experienced discrimination.
Local issues were also at the forefront of residents’ minds. Latinos had mixed views on the city’s use of blight tickets to combat housing code violations, with one third of respondents supporting them and one third opposing them.
As local organizations, like Michigan United, continue trying to get a paid sick leave initiative on the ballot in 2018, they can expect strong support among Latinos in Southwest Detroit. About two out of every three Latinos in the area indicated they would be more likely to support a candidate who supports the paid sick leave requirement.
The students then followed up with the residents a month later to see if they planned to vote in the upcoming city council election. At this point, the students implemented some interventions that have been used to increase political participation like, evoking emotions that have been shown to have a mobilizing effect, framing voting as an important social norm, and speaking with voters immediately before an election. With the election now over, students are back in the classroom analyzing the effectiveness of these interventions and will use their first-hand experience to better understand public opinion and political participation.