An organization’s efforts to get out the vote may help to determine who wins the 2016 election.
Jose Barboza was up early on March 22nd, the day of the Presidential primary in Arizona. Barboza, a twenty-four-year-old undocumented immigrant from Mexico, was volunteering for Promise Arizona, a local group dedicated to turning out Latino voters. That morning, he canvassed in the barrios of Phoenix, at the foot of the dry slopes of South Mountain, making sure that the people he had registered showed up to vote. When I interviewed him in April, in the offices of Promise Arizona, he recalled the extraordinary excitement of the primary voters. In the end, a record six hundred thousand people cast ballots in the city and the rest of Maricopa County, twice the number in 2012.
Barboza is animated and solidly built, with close-cropped hair and black, rectangular-framed glasses. He was born in Guadalajara, and when he was four years old he came to the United States with his family. He went to public schools in Phoenix, and considers himself an American. His father is a construction worker, and his mother runs the family. As he put it, “There’s her, and there’s her.”
Barboza first volunteered for Promise Arizona in the spring of 2012, when some friends who worked for the organization recruited him. At the time, he was making money by reselling cell phones at a markup. Other than that, he told me, “I wasn’t doing anything, just playing video games all day.” As a volunteer, he went from roaming the battlefields of Call of Duty to speaking with unregistered, often apathetic men and women at their homes, at strip malls, and at gas stations. The first voter he signed up lived in an apartment in West Phoenix, where Barboza was going door-to-door. Months later, Barboza returned, and took a picture of the man holding up his ballot. He posted it on Instagram, with a caption: “He was, like, take my picture, ‘Ya lo voy hacer por primera vez’ ”—“I’m going to do it for the first time.”
On Election Day four years ago, one of Barboza’s duties was to collect the vote-by-mail ballots of people who had missed the deadline for sending them in and were unable to get them to a polling place. Barboza delivered them instead, receiving an “I Voted Today” sticker for each one. “My whole body was covered with them,” he told me. “I felt like I’d voted.”
This March, on primary day, Barboza again collected and delivered ballots. At 9p.m., Barboza headed to one of the larger polling places, at a Salvation Army in central Phoenix, where he discovered that voters had been waiting for hours. “I said, ‘Oh, my God, this is serious.’ ” On his smartphone, he recorded a two-minute video that showed a few hundred weary-looking people lined up on a sidewalk in the near-dark.
Barboza was not the only person to notice. That afternoon, it was reported that some voters had brought lawn chairs to sit in for the long wait, and wide-brimmed hats and umbrellas to protect them from the sun. The fact was that the county had reduced the number of polling stations to sixty. Four years earlier, there had been two hundred.
I asked Helen Purcell, the elections chief of Maricopa County, about the lines. “Obviously, it is a fact we didn’t have enough polling places,” she told me. “I’ve said repeatedly that was my error. We should have had more. We should have anticipated a more energetic group of voters.” Purcell said that the state, rather than the county, was supposed to cover the costs of the primary, but hadn’t released the funds by Election Day, forcing her to reduce the number of polling places.
In Phoenix, where Latinos make up forty per cent of the population, there was one station for every hundred and eight thousand residents. Some precincts in the south of the city, where the majority is Latino, had no polling places at all. But Purcell told me that the long lines had affected everyone in the county equally. “I’ve had twenty-seven years of doing this,” she said. “I’ve never discriminated against anyone.”
There were further problems in April, when the county misprinted the title of an initiative on 1.3 million Spanish-language ballots that were mailed to early voters. The elections office sent postcards informing voters of the error. Purcell acknowledged to me that the misprint was an embarrassment. “Every election cycle, you look at something you can do differently,” she said.
Arizona has often been called the Mississippi of the West, and state leaders are familiar with charges of racial discrimination, especially when it comes to voting rights. Native Americans in Arizona were not allowed to vote until 1948. Prior to 1975, Arizona provided campaign materials only in English, despite the large Spanish-speaking population. In 2004, the state legislature, which had been under Republican control for more than a decade, passed one of the country’s first laws requiring voters to present a state-issued I.D. at polling places. Since 2013, when the Supreme Court overturned crucial sections of the Voting Rights Act, Arizona has been able to make changes such as the recent reduction in polling stations without being subject to federal review.
The trouble extends beyond voting rights. Joe Arpaio, who has been the sheriff of Maricopa County since 1993, is known nationally for conducting what he calls “saturation patrols,” in which his deputies stop motorists in Latino neighborhoods and check their immigration papers. In 2011, in the course of a class-action suit brought against the county by the American Civil Liberties Union, a federal court issued an injunction against Arpaio’s policy of detaining people based on their immigration status. Arpaio continued anyway, and now faces possible criminal charges. He is running for his seventh term this fall.
In recent years, as infringements on the rights of Latinos have increased, activist groups have proliferated. In Arizona, the key event provoking this activism occurred on April 19, 2010, when the state legislature passed a bill that contained the most Draconian set of anti-immigrant measures in recent American history. The bill, which was sponsored by Russell Pearce, a state senator who represented Mesa,* codified the saturation patrols, requiring state police to check the immigration status of anyone they detained. It also prohibited undocumented immigrants from working, and criminalized the failure to carry immigration documents.
The week that the bill passed, Petra Falcon, who has worked on behalf of Latinos in Arizona for forty years, convened a “vigil team” of seven people on the lawn of the state capitol. During the day, they prayed to the Virgin of Guadalupe that Governor Jan Brewer would issue a veto. At night, they slept in tents. Even after Brewer signed the bill, the group continued their protest. That July, a federal judge ruled that some of the more controversial provisions—including those related to police patrols, employment, and identification requirements—were unlawful, and the Supreme Court eventually agreed. Falcon ended the vigil, and founded Promise Arizona.
So far, Falcon told me, the organization has registered forty-six thousand voters in Maricopa County—about a quarter of all new registrations. It has also continued the work that Falcon has done since 1992, helping Latino candidates in Arizona to get elected and supporting immigration reform. This year, Falcon has joined her voter-registration efforts with those of One Arizona, a Phoenix-based coalition of Latino registration groups. Together, they hope to register seventy-five thousand voters before the election this fall.
Falcon has been thwarted in a goal shared by many other activists: unseating Sheriff Arpaio. But she believes that Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant campaign could inspire large numbers of Latinos in Arizona to turn out, which could likely lead to Arpaio’s defeat. The ties between Trump and Arpaio go back to the “birther” controversy of 2011, when they both demanded that President Obama release his birth certificate to prove that he had not been born in Kenya. In 2012, Trump sent Arpaio a handwritten note after Arpaio dispatched several members of his office to Hawaii to investigate whether Obama really had been born there: “Great going—you are the only one with the ‘guts’ to do this—keep up the good fight.”
Echoing Arpaio, Trump made fear of immigrants a central talking point in his campaign. Last June, Trump declared, referring to Mexican immigrants, “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” Since then, Arpaio has appeared several times with him on the campaign trail. On January 26th, before the Iowa caucuses, he travelled to Marshalltown, fifty miles outside Des Moines, to help fire up a Trump rally. He told the audience, “Everything I believe in, he’s doing, and he’s going to do it when he becomes President.” On March 3rd, at a Republican debate in Detroit, Trump said, “Sheriff Joe Arpaio endorsed me. And if he endorses you, believe me, you are the strongest.”
Later that month, when Trump held a rally in the Phoenix suburb of Fountain Hills, members of the group Puente attempted to disrupt the event by blocking the road to the venue. Some chained themselves to vehicles that they had parked sideways across the road, and three were arrested by Arpaio’s deputies. Onstage, Arpaio said, “If they think they’re going to intimidate you and the next President of the United States, it’s not going to happen.”
After the 2012 election, Republicans agreed that, if they were going to recapture the White House, they needed to appeal to Latino voters, along with women and African-Americans. Party officials reasoned that although Latinos had long been disproportionately Democratic, they were hardly monolithic. The Cuban exiles of Miami, adamant that the embargo against Cuba should continue, leaned Republican, and Latinos in rural areas have always tended to be socially conservative.
But the Party establishment underestimated its growing populist wing, which had been anti-immigrant for decades. In 1994, California’s governor, Pete Wilson, whose approval rating had dropped as low as fifteen per cent, tied his reëlection campaign to a ballot initiative that sought to bar undocumented immigrants from emergency rooms and public schools. The measure passed, and Wilson was reëlected with fifty-five per cent of the vote. He had a twenty-eight-point advantage among whites.
During the primaries this year, Ted Cruz, of Texas, and Marco Rubio, of Florida, the first Latinos to break into the top tier of Presidential candidates, made strong appeals to conservative family values, but started sounding like Trump when it came to immigration. Last August, Cruz said that “we should end birthright citizenship.” In November, Rubio announced that “people will have to be deported” before immigration reform can proceed. Dolores Huerta, an eighty-six-year-old Latina activist who, beginning in the nineteen-sixties, worked closely with Cesar Chavez in California, publicly denounced Cruz and Rubio as “traitors” and “sellouts.”
But many Latino leaders are unhappy about President Obama’s stalled progress on immigration reform. In 2012, as a substitute for the failed federal dream Act, he issued an executive order that prevents certain undocumented young people from being deported. Two years later, he issued another order, expanding the program and also creating a version for some adults, but the Supreme Court blocked it in June. At the same time, in what began as an attempt to bring Republicans to the table, Obama has been aggressively enforcing existing immigration statutes. By the time he leaves office, he will have deported more undocumented immigrants than any other President.
Democratic leaders believe that Latino voters will continue to side with them, especially if the party of Trump is the alternative, and they are counting on the Latino rolls expanding. In the past three Presidential elections, less than half of the eligible Latinos turned out to vote. In Arizona, between 2008 and 2012, the number of registered Latinos increased by nearly a quarter. Hillary Clinton has promised to pursue comprehensive immigration reform, end family detention, and close private detention centers.
Falcon and her allies hope that a sizable Latino turnout in Arizona will help to secure a victory for Clinton nationwide. Four years ago, Mitt Romney beat Barack Obama in the state by about two hundred thousand votes, but he won only twenty-five per cent of the Latino vote, against Obama’s seventy-four per cent. Recent polls show that Trump’s favorability among Latinos is as low as fourteen per cent. Throughout the West, piñata-makers offer a papier-mâché Trump, and Petra Falcon told me that Latinos in Phoenix commonly refer to him as “el pelo de elote,” the corn-haired guy.
Promise Arizona, whose programs are funded by the liberal Center for Community Change and by the Atlantic Philanthropies, among other foundations interested in immigrants’ rights, has a paid staff of six. In addition to its registration drives, it offers English-language classes, immigration counselling, and housing referrals. Its headquarters occupy a modest building on the grounds of the Primera Iglesia United Methodist Church, just south of downtown Phoenix.
Like most Latinos in Phoenix, Falcon is a practicing Catholic. In her office, she keeps a stack of prayer books and three plaster statues of the Virgin Mary, which she takes with her to vigils and protests. She follows in the tradition of Chavez, who used prayer and religious symbols as a way to connect with the Latino families he helped.
Every Monday, usually in private homes, Falcon holds prayer sessions that focus on social justice and immigration reform. The host family sometimes offers menudo, a spicy tripe soup, and Falcon brings Mexican sweet bread; the guests discuss issues ranging from insufficient bus service to the upcoming election. “Connect the dots, nationally and locally,” Falcon tells them. The meetings often conclude with an Our Father.
When immigrants come to Promise Arizona to avail themselves of its services, Falcon asks them to join an organizing campaign. She explains to them that registering citizens will help other recent arrivals; the volunteers, who include children as young as ten, then tell prospective voters that by going to the polls they can increase the chances that more Latino officials and like-minded politicians will be elected.
This past March, Promise Arizona joined the fight to pass a ballot initiative, Proposition 123, which called for $3.5 billion to be gradually released from the state’s land trust and given to the public-school system, where forty-four per cent of the students are Latino. Forty-five volunteers canvassed in the barrios of South Phoenix. In May, the initiative passed by twenty thousand votes, out of a million cast.
Falcon, who is sixty-two, has five children and six grandchildren. She is small in stature, with bronze skin and white hair. Her manner is maternal and forthright. In the nineteen-forties, her parents, Mexican-Americans, moved from Texas to Arizona, where they helped to establish an Assemblies of God church in Glendale, on the outskirts of Phoenix, and brought up their eight children. Falcon’s four brothers worked with their father in the watermelon and onion fields.
Growing up in the fifties and sixties, Falcon saw many young men die from gun violence and drug abuse, the result, she believes, of poverty, family dysfunction, and official neglect. “This was not a neighborhood that took care of its children,” she told me, driving through Glendale, where aging homes were squeezed between industrial buildings. “That’s why no one fought to defend or preserve it.”
In middle school, Falcon worked in a garment factory, and in high school as a page for the Glendale City Council. She attended Arizona State University, but dropped out in 1975, during her junior year, to get married. Her husband was Catholic, and she converted. After five years, they divorced, and Falcon later married and divorced again. Four of her children have college degrees; the other has had a career in the military.
In the nineteen-eighties, when Falcon was in her thirties, she ran twice, unsuccessfully, for a seat in the state legislature. “I was a kid, a newbie,” she told me. She discovered how much the mechanics of an election mattered. “It’s all about numbers and who gets out to vote.” Falcon gave up her personal political ambitions, but in the late eighties she and other parents demanded that the Phoenix City Council take action against an epidemic of gang violence. In response, the city built a major addition to the South Mountain Community Center, which serves Latino youth.
Around that time, Falcon took a job with Valley Interfaith, based in Phoenix, now known as the Arizona Interfaith Network. She was dispatched to Yuma and Tucson, where in the course of nearly two decades she worked to establish immigrants’-rights centers near the Mexican border. Each day before dawn, farmworkers boarded buses and crossed legally into the United States. Falcon held prayer sessions in the parking lots before the workers headed into the lettuce fields. She returned to Phoenix in 2009, just as Arizona lawmakers were beginning to draft the legislation that inspired her three-month vigil.
Promise Arizona fought its first major campaign in 2011, backing the successful recall election of Russell Pearce, who was mired in an ethics scandal. (The group is registered to conduct both partisan and nonpartisan activities.) One of Falcon’s youngest volunteers at the time was Jacqueline Garcia, a dogged fourteen-year-old. Her brother Luis joined Promise Arizona the following year, when he was thirteen, and quickly became a trainer of new recruits. Their mother lives in Mexico, and they were brought up in Phoenix by their grandparents, undocumented immigrants whom they call Mom and Dad.
“Dad used to tell us about El Sheriff Arpaio,” Jacqueline said. “We would hear him say, ‘Que las redadas’—‘Because of the raids.’ ” Their grandfather worked as a landscaper when he could, but was frequently late with the rent, and often sent Jacqueline to talk to the landlord. “We didn’t have light for a while,” she said. “Our friends would come over and say, ‘How come it’s so dark?’ ”
In early 2012, Jacqueline and Luis’s grandfather was detained at a traffic stop and forced into deportation proceedings. When their grandmother fell ill, Jacqueline dropped out of school to support Luis. That year, Falcon gave Jacqueline a paying job as an organizer, and Luis trained Jose Barboza, who was then nineteen. They all volunteered together on Adiós Arpaio, an effort of Promise Arizona and the Unite HERE union, which represents hotel and restaurant workers, to defeat Arpaio in his reëlection race that fall. His Democratic opponent was Paul Penzone, who promised to go after drug smugglers and human traffickers, rather than focus, as Arpaio had done, on immigrant raids.
Promise Arizona and other local groups began collecting ballots as a way to help their cause. Barboza recalled that, on Election Day in 2012, a man drove by and asked where he could turn in his ballot. Barboza told me, “I saw the envelope he was holding, and it felt like it was shining gold.” He explained that he was a volunteer for Promise Arizona, and the man handed over the ballot.
In 2012, Barboza and the Garcia siblings delivered several dozen ballots and registered hundreds of new voters. But the election proved problematic. Thousands of Latino residents, voting for the first time, did not receive the vote-by-mail ballots they had requested, and had to cast provisional ballots; because of the great volume, many ended up languishing. Two days after President Obama was reëlected, more than six hundred thousand ballots remained uncounted in the state, most of them in Maricopa County. In the contest for county sheriff, Arpaio beat Penzone by six percentage points.
Since 2012, Barboza and the Garcias have worked for Promise Arizona on campaigns for the state legislature, ballot measures, and the current Presidential election. Barboza estimated that by now he has registered about three thousand people—equal to the population of a Phoenix precinct, or of some Arizona mining towns. Falcon told me, “In a close race, that many votes could make the difference between winning and losing.”
Laws concerning ballot collection vary from state to state. In Oregon, anyone can do it; in California, only a relative is allowed to bring someone’s ballot to a polling place. In Arizona, Republican legislators have argued that “ballot harvesting,” as they call it, presents an opportunity for voter fraud. Although vote tampering and fraud are virtually nonexistent in the U.S., in the past six years twenty-two states have cut back on early voting, eliminated absentee ballots, and begun requiring photo I.D.s at polling places.
In January, Michelle Ugenti-Rita, a state representative from Scottsdale, who is also a real-estate agent, introduced a bill that would make ballot collection in Arizona a felony, punishable by a year in jail and a hundred-and-fifty-thousand-dollar fine. A few weeks later, at a committee meeting, Ugenti-Rita acknowledged that there was no evidence that ballot collection had led to vote tampering. Yet she said of the bill, “It helps deter people from committing ballot fraud, because it limits the opportunity of someone to be in possession of somebody else’s ballot.” Ballot collection, she said, “is ripe to be taken advantage of.” Governor Doug Ducey signed the bill in March.
Ugenti-Rita told me she was not aware that children and undocumented immigrants were collecting ballots. It was the practice itself that disturbed her. “Collecting someone else’s ballot is bizarre,” she said. “Think about it. Where else does it exist? When does a stranger knock on someone’s door and collect very sensitive information?” When I told her that Latino groups saw the new law as an assault on their get-out-the-vote efforts, she said, “We’re constantly balancing wanting to make the voting process as convenient as possible. But you can’t undermine or weaken the electoral process. There comes a point where you can’t allow everything.”
Ian Danley, the director of One Arizona, the coalition of Latino voter-registration groups, told me, “No voter is saying, ‘You keep those helpful dang kids off my porch.’ These voters are giving us their ballots gratefully. The only people criticizing this are people who are fundamentally afraid of Latinos voting.”
The law is scheduled to go into effect in August. The Democratic National Committee has initiated a legal challenge to it, but even if the law stands, Falcon told me, “we can still call voters. Voter education is going to be much more important.”
On April 29th, Joe Arpaio appeared at a hearing at the federal courthouse in downtown Phoenix, to testify about his failure to suspend his unlawful tactics targeting immigrants. “This court order slipped through the cracks,” he said. He also admitted that he had hired a private detective to investigate the wife of G. Murray Snow, the judge who had issued the injunction against the patrols. (Someone loyal to Arpaio had allegedly heard her say that her husband hoped to ruin Arpaio’s career.) In May, Arpaio and three of his top aides were held in civil contempt, leaving open the possibility of criminal prosecution.
This fall, Falcon expects that voters will cast their ballots for Paul Penzone, who is again challenging Arpaio. “Last time, we came very close to ousting him,” she said. “We really need to use all that energy. It’s going to take everyone’s concerted effort to beat him.” There has been no nonpartisan polling in the race, but a recent poll released by the Penzone campaign showed him leading Arpaio by four points.
Meanwhile, John McCain, who is running for his sixth term in the Senate, faces a formidable challenge from Ann Kirkpatrick, a Democratic representative from Flagstaff, as he struggles to reconcile the demands of the Republican base with his own positions. In May, 2008, as the presumptive Republican nominee for President, McCain called undocumented immigrants “God’s children,” and said that “we must enact comprehensive immigration reform.” Three years later, he was one of the senators in a bipartisan group, the so-called Gang of Eight, that took up immigration reform and crafted a bill that would offer a path to legalization for millions of people.
In the spring of 2013, when the Gang of Eight was meeting with representatives from technology companies, labor unions, and agribusiness firms, Falcon travelled to Washington to speak with McCain and show support for the proposed bill. She told me, “It provided a pathway to citizenship—it was the best deal we were going to have. I think McCain was getting beaten up because he was for comprehensive immigration reform.”
McCain told me in a recent e-mail, “Arizona needs more leaders like Petra, whose commitment to engaging young people in public service and reforming our immigration system continue to have a tremendous impact across our state.” Forty per cent of Arizona’s Latino voters supported McCain during his run for reëlection in 2010. At a fund-raiser in April, McCain said, “If Donald Trump is at the top of the ticket, here in Arizona, with over thirty per cent of the vote being the Hispanic vote, no doubt that this may be the race of my life.”
In May, however, with evident reluctance, McCain announced on CNN that he was endorsing Trump: “You have to listen to people that have chosen the nominee.” When I asked his campaign whether he was attempting to win over Latino voters this year, a member of his staff wrote back saying that last year they had hired a Latino-outreach director and launched a coalition called Unidos con McCain. The reply mentioned the Senator’s “long record fighting to sensibly and humanely fix our broken immigration system,” while at the same time citing his endorsement by the National Border Patrol Council.
According to Adrian Pantoja, a political scientist at Pitzer College and an analyst at the polling firm Latino Decisions, “What happened to Generation X in California in 1994 is happening now with the millennials. The Republicans are losing an entire generation of Latinos. They will remember that the Party leadership did nothing to reject or denounce Trump.”
Younger Latino activists in Phoenix see Petra Falcon as something of a conservative. Her emphasis on voter registration reflects an underlying faith in the political system, and this spring she joined a group of about fifty Latino Catholics across the country in signing a “Declaration of Values.” It included a condemnation of abortion, and the statement “Two fathers will never replace a mother. Two mothers will never replace a father.”
Leaders from groups affiliated with Falcon, who had described her to me as a mentor in their movement, told me that her position on same-sex marriage has harmed the cause of immigrants’ rights in Arizona. One ally of Falcon’s, Tony Moya, who worked on her second campaign for a seat in the Arizona legislature, responded on Facebook to her attack on gay marriage with a photograph of him with his partner and their cat, and a message: “We do not condone nor do we respect those who spew hate toward our family.”
I asked Falcon why she had signed the declaration, and she said, “The document is irrelevant. What’s relevant are my actions of the past four decades.” When I spoke with Dulce Matuz, of the Arizona Dream Act Coalition, she acknowledged that there was a “generation gap” between Falcon and people like her. She noted that many “Dreamer” activists did not support the Gang of Eight’s plan for immigration reform, viewing it as “piecemeal legislation.” But, she added, “I respect Falcon for being involved for such a long time. We may not agree one hundred per cent on strategy and tactics, but she’s made many sacrifices to get to the same goal.”
Falcon remains optimistic about the future. Even now, she hopes that Republicans will reach an agreement with Democrats on immigration reform. She also remains patient: as Latinos continue registering to vote, more Latino judges and legislators will be elected, and the community’s power will grow.
Jacqueline Garcia, now nineteen, and her brother Luis are living on their own. Their grandfather was deported; their grandmother died. Luis intends to run for public office, and Jacqueline wants to become a judge. When I asked Falcon about them, she said, “Leadership is purpose with courage, even in the light of uncertainty. That’s what these young people have.” ♦
*An earlier version misidentified the district that Russell Pearce represented as an Arizona state senator.