All Hands on Deck

María Teresa Kumar is helping Voto Latino to register new voters in what the organization sees as the most important election in memory

By Billy Yost

María Teresa Kumar knows that there has never been a more important moment than now for Latino civic participation.

“2020 is all-hands-on-deck,” says the president and CEO of Voto Latino, a nonprofit whose aim is to engage more Latinos in becoming more politically active and registering to vote. “I have spent time at the border and at shelters, and while the government has started with the most vulnerable members of our community, that’s not where they’ll end.”

Kumar is driven to redefine the false narrative and dehumanization of those seeking refuge and opportunity in the US. She says that Latinos have the potential to become a voting bloc that can do more than just participate in the election—it can define the election’s terms.

Voto Latino is operating at high urgency in its ongoing effort to register new voters. “Starting in 2016, a million Latinos are coming of age each year,” Kumar says. “In 2020, we will be the second largest voting bloc ever. We need to start investing in our political power.”

Kumar experienced an aha moment in 2016 when, after the Florida voter registration deadline was extended following Hurricane Hermine, she pushed organizational donors to work to register another 140,000 new voters. “I was told that Florida was fine because we had registered ‘who we need for Florida,’” Kumar says. “But ‘enough’ isn’t all.’”

She explains that unless Latinos are willing to start investing in political candidates that speak to their values, they will be subject to a system that seeks “just enough” of the Latino vote to win. It’s a huge distinction between courting the vote and actively working on behalf of a population that holds candidates accountable. As such, Voto Latino is endeavoring to register one million new voters before the 2020 election.

“Starting in 2016, a million Latinos are coming of age each year. In 2020, we will be the second largest voting bloc ever. We need to start investing in our political power.”

Voto Latino is also working to make sure that all people living in the US—documented or undocumented—are counted in the upcoming US Census.

“In 2010, 10 percent of all children under five were not counted—that’s roughly five million kids,” Kumar says. “Of that, 35 percent are Hispanic, and in this census, that number will be even larger.”

For the first time, children under seven are going to be “the majority minority,” Kumar says, and if those children are showing up to schools that are unknowing and therefore ill-prepared, they won’t get the education and care they are entitled to.

“We’re talking about literally $650 billion that gets redistributed by the federal government,” she says. “If we’re not counted, we won’t have roads or jobs, because factories and services go to where the people are.”

Despite all the issues facing Latinos, she remains hopeful. “I deeply believe in this country and that we are best when we think big, when we think vivaciously,” Kumar says. “I know there is a generation who is Latino, who has big dreams for themselves, who is willing to work hard, and they want a fair shot.”

Kumar says her own mother poured her sweat and tears into a country that she thought was made better by more voices. That same country is where 49 percent of registered Latinos weren’t even contacted by a political party. “It’s time for the soon-to-be second-largest voting population to make its voice heard,” she says.

Photo: Jorge Yapor

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