A group of young Latinas donned their quince gowns on Oct. 29 and led their families and friends along the streets of San Antonio, urging them to harness their electoral voice and vote in the upcoming midterm elections. The event was part of Ride to the Polls, a national campaign from the nonprofit organization Harness that aims to encourage young BIPOC voter turnout through cultural milestone celebrations. At the end of the parade, participants were invited to register to vote or even vote early if they were eligible. Organizers of this event say the stakes of this year’s elections could not be any higher, and it is more important than ever for young BIPOC voters to have their voices heard through electoral choice.
“This is an important rite of passage, and we wanted to connect that rite of passage to the rite of passage that comes with voting,” said Harness senior programs manager Pacita Rudder. “Voting is also an important step in a young person’s life. We want to highlight that through the cultural relevancy of quinceñeras but also at the same time, building that solidarity among Black, Indigenous, Latino people of color communities.”
Ride to the Polls is inspired by young indigenous activist Allie Young, who led trail rides through Navajo Nation to get young native voters to the polls in the 2020 elections. According to Rudder, the event highlighted the voter suppression on reservations and in Native communities. Harness is hoping to expand the event’s impact this year by bringing more communities of color to the polls.
“Ultimately, what we’re doing is building a culture of voting,” said Rudder. “That starts at a young age and, unfortunately, in this country and in our system, voting hasn’t been ingrained in the way that it should be.”
Though the young Latinas celebrating their quinceñeras are only 15 years old and not yet eligible to vote, the campaign hopes to spark civic interest at an early age and inspire involvement from older friends and family who are eligible voters. Midterms have historically received lower voter turnout than presidential elections; according to data from FairVote, about 60% of the eligible voting population votes during presidential election years, while about 40% votes during midterm elections. According to the Census Bureau’s current population survey, young adults ages 18-24 who voted in the last midterm elections nearly doubled, from 17% in 2014 to 32% in 2018. Harness organizers hope to see that number grow even further.
“Once you hit 18, there’s a lot of things that come with it and a lot of responsibilities, one of which is voting, and if we’re able to educate the younger folks early, then that makes it easier,” Rudder said. “Us being able to bring in those 15-year-olds who are celebrating to be a part of the process and a system of voting helps them have an easier time voting once they hit the age range of voting.”
The Ride to the Polls quinceñeras were also done in partnership with the nonprofit Jolt Initiative, whose goal is to increase civic engagement amongst Latinx youth within Texas as a whole. San Antonio, and Texas at large, has been at the forefront of conservatives’ attacks on abortion rights, inhumane immigration policies, and a tragic school shooting in Uvalde that still did not incite legislative gun reform. Organizers say the stakes could not be higher, especially in Texas, which has clearly set the precedent for conservative legislation and policy nationwide.
“There’s a lot at stake right across the board, both nationally, but specifically in Texas,” said Rudder. “It’s important for us to be getting as many people of color communities out to vote so that their voices are heard in this election because if they’re not, we’re gonna see more of that continued pushback against initiatives that support racial justice, reproductive justice, and immigration reform.”
Rudder hopes that getting out the Latinx vote in the midterm elections will lead to a “cultural shift” with greater representation from people most impacted by legislative policy. Over 40% of Texans are Latinx, surpassing the white, non-Latinx demographic.
“We know that the power of Latinos is very engaging and very strong, and what we want to do is bring that empowerment and bring that voice and bring that advocacy to young Latinas,” said Diana Maldonado, Jolt Initiative interim executive director. “That’s one of the investments that we feel that is important for our American democracy, our statewide democracy, and our Latino democracy to be represented now, as Latinos are becoming the largest demographic in the state of Texas and other states in the nation.”
While communities of color are rightfully “fatigued” by ongoing turmoil, Rudder hopes the celebration will inspire young voters to retain faith in the electoral process and realize the power of their vote.
“[Overturning Roe v. Wade, harmful immigration policy, and school shootings], those are things that can be prevented with good policies that are really grounded and rooted in the community and are not built to harm communities of color, especially in Latino communities,” said Rudder. “That is some of the power of voting that doesn’t often get shared; that voting can actually directly impact some of those things that you see whether it’s a school shooting, gun violence, people dying on the border—voting can actually make that difference in those issues.”