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How The Hispanic Vote Is Playing Out On Both Sides Of The State Line In Kansas City


The 87-year-old president of La Raza political club in Kansas City, Mo., has been working the same poll in her neighborhood near the Kansas-Missouri state line every Election Day for more than 50 years.

Rafaela "Lali" García has devoted most of her life trying to get Kansas City's Hispanic community in Missouri more involved in local government. She says she proudly has registered hundreds of voters in the Show-Me State in the past few years. 

 But as she gears up for another election on Tuesday, she says she also is excited about the potential her neighbors across the state line have to make their voices heard this year.  

“I think that in the state of Kansas, right across the river from me, they’re going to get it done,” García said.  

With current polling margins between candidates in the races for Kansas governor, secretary of state and a Kansas seat in the U.S. Senate in the low-single digits, a higher-than-expected turnout from Hispanic voters could be enough to swing the vote for a certain party or candidate.

RELATED: A history of state line's Hispanic communities

There were 123,000 eligible Hispanic voters in Kansas in 2012, roughly 6 percent of the eligible electorate, according to the According to the Pew Research Center.  In past elections, 6 percent hasn't made much of a difference, but because of the closeness of these races, 6 percent could decide the race for a particular candidate. 

“We can be that swing vote, that decisive factor in some of these local races, if we vote,” said Irene Caudillo, president and CEO of El Centro Inc.

El Centro is a not-for-profit organization in Kansas City, Kan., whose mission is to improve the lives of the Hispanic community.  The organization, in association with the National Council of La Raza, a national advocacy organization for Latinos, has researched Hispanic voting records.

"One of the things that was really eye opening was that at a national level in the past, Latinos have really proved themselves as swing voters and decisive forces, but we weren't seeing that at a local level," Caudillo said. "Our voting levels at a local level left much to be desired."

El Centro has increased efforts to mobilize voters in Kansas City, Kan., where 25 percent of Kansas' Hispanic voters live. In addition to holding "Get out the Vote" rallies, volunteers all over the state have been going door to door, calling households, and canvassing neighborhoods, emphasizing the potential impact Hispanics can have in this election and showing them where they can educate themselves on candidates.

Credit Lisa Rodriguez / KCUR
89-year-old Rafaela 'Lali' Garcia, president of La Raza political club in Kansas City, Mo., poses with her friend Manuel 'Rabbit' Hernandez. She hopes that he'll take over her position as president whenever she steps down.

In Missouri, 97,000 Hispanics were eligible to vote in 2012, 2 percent of the eligible electorate. García says although the numbers may be small, it's enough to make their voices heard to local politicians. 

Chris Medina, CEO of Guadalupe Centers Inc., which provides services to the Hispanic community in Kansas City, Mo., says that an endorsement from García and La Raza political club is one the most sought-after by local politicians. 

All the extra canvassing to get Hispanics to the polls in Kansas and Missouri is part an effort to change patterns of low turnout on prior elections.

Less than 30 percent of registered Hispanic voters in Kansas turned out on Election Day in 2010, according to the Kansas People's Association. That is why the group is making an effort to reach more than 100,000 infrequent Latino voters. 

Kansas People's Association is a Wichita-based political action committee dedicated to black and Hispanic voters in Kansas. This year, the group endorsed the challengers of the incumbents in each Kansas race. 

Executive Director Sulma Arias says volunteers have spoken to more than 20,000 Hispanic voters on the phone and she's confident a majority of the people they talked to will show up on Tuesday. 

For some Hispanic voters in Kansas, changes in voter identification requirements have posed difficulties in voter registration.

"Two years ago, a voter could register in  a few minutes by filling out one form," said Aude Negrete, staff member at El Centro. "This year, it was a time-consuming and difficult process for voters, volunteers and the elections office. As a result, the number of registered voters we got was much smaller than it would have been two years ago."

Credit Courtesy photo / El Centro Inc.
El Centro Inc.
Volunteers from El Centro Inc. gather wearing matching ACLU shirts to go door to door to register Hispanic voters in Wyandotte County last month.

In Kansas, each individual must have an official photo ID and prove U.S. citizenship in order to vote. Negrete says that when volunteers went door to door to register Latinos in Wyandotte County, young adults had the most trouble tracking down birth certificates and naturalization papers.

In Missouri, voter identification requirements are not as strict. Voters can provide non-photo identification, such as a bank statement, and do not need to show proof of U.S. citizenship. 

“The stricter voter identification laws in Kansas may put Latinos at a disadvantage," said Christina Bejarano, associate professor of political science at the University of Kansas. "There could be a lack of motivation to overcome these obstacles,” 

The lack of competition in past Kansas elections is another factor that may have kept Hispanics from  turning out in high numbers. That is what makes this year different. Given how narrow the margin of victory could be for Kansas' elections, a large turnout from Hispanic voters could potentially shift the equation.

This look at the Missouri-Kansas state line is part of KCUR's months-long examination of how geographic borders affect our daily lives in Kansas City. KCUR will go Beyond Our Borders  and spark a community conversation through social outreach and innovative journalism.

We will share the history of these lines, how the borders affect the current Kansas City experience and what’s being done to bridge or dissolve them. Be a source for Beyond Our Borders: Share your perspective and experiences on the state line with KCUR.

Slow news days are a thing of the past. As KCUR’s news director, I want to cut through the noise, provide context to the headlines, and give you news you can use in your daily life – information that will empower you to make informed decisions about your neighborhood, your city and the region. Email me at lisa@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @larodrig.
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