Since 2017, a Garden City native has been researching Hispanic voter access in his hometown, eventually hoping to pinpoint barriers to Hispanic voters in southwest Kansas, particularly Garden City, Dodge City and Liberal, and how they can be addressed.

His findings, still in progress, currently point to a key hurdle: communication.

Alex Villagran, a recent University of Kansas graduate who now lives in the Kansas City area, majored in political science, minored in American studies and public policy and has been studying Garden City’s Hispanic voter access on and off for over a year. The work is part of an ongoing, grant-funded research project into challenges Hispanics face in reaching the polls in a region where Latino populations top 50 percent in the three largest cities.

Besides researching the subject in other more prominently studied areas, like the U.S. borders and coasts, Villagran said he has been interviewing leaders and residents in Garden City, mentally breaking them into three groups: those dealing with election logistics, local leaders of political parties and members of the Hispanic electorate.

“I think when you think about systemic barriers to voting for Latinos, it sounds like it’s a big challenge, right? And it sounds almost intimidating to address,” Villagran said. “But really what I’m finding is when you break it down, it just comes down to making sure that everybody speaks the same language.”

He means both literally and figuratively. From what Villagran’s seen, potential language barriers can keep Hispanic residents from the polls. But more evident was a lack of communication between Hispanics and those offering access to the polls in the first place.

Sometimes, Villagran said, local government or political party leaders may be offering resources, but not properly advertising or sharing them in ways accessible to Spanish-speaking residents. During interviews, he said he, at separate times, spoke to a Latino constituent and a resident involved in politics or election logistics who were both interested in organizing a similar community outreach event for voters. Because of language barriers and different social circles, even good ideas could be lost.

Effective outreach, he said, needed both intentionality and strategy.

“It’s just a matter of ‘Can we talk to these folks?’ Can we make sure that our ideas are accessible to them? Are we going to their neighborhood? Are we knocking on doors? Are we giving out material in the same language?” Villagran said. “That’s just one of the main things that stood out to me was that it does sound challenging, big and scary — and it kind of is. But it is very much able to be broken down. It’s just this big problem of voter barriers is just (comprised) of these smaller issues.”

Ahead of the 2018 general election, the Finney County Clerk’s office has offered voting information via social media posts and online resources in both English and Spanish and will have at least one Spanish speaker at every polling place come Election Day, said Dori Munyan, Finney County clerk.

Last week, County Commissioner Bill Clifford said he talked to Munyan directly about better educating voters, particularly Hispanic voters through La Semana, The Garden City Telegram's Spanish print newspaper, or local radio stations.

County leaders, including Clifford and Munyan, said last week they were not aware of issues keeping minority voters from the polls in Finney County and that early voting had brought in residents of all ethnicities.

County Commissioner Dave Jones said last week that if citizens thought the county could be doing more to reach voters, especially minority voters, they should let commissioners know. If the suggestions were reasonable and affordable, they’d gladly look into them, he said.

Tim Beltran, owner of Tim and Jerri’s Auto Sales, said he didn’t see any challenges preventing Hispanic residents from voting in Finney County. Local government can only do so much, he said, and he thought the county supported the Hispanic community well. Prejudice was still present in the county in some ways, but it was much better than it used to be, he said.

Enrique Alvarado, owner of Unique Automotive in Garden City, said he had noticed ads encouraging voting on Spanish radio and TV platforms and Finney County promoting voting resources for Spanish-speakers and other local minority groups on Facebook and the county’s website. This year, Hispanic residents he had spoken to were well-informed and civically active.

“I think they’re doing what they’re supposed to,” Alvarado said of the county. “I’ve been in Garden City for 30 years, and I haven’t seen that much activity on the voting part from Finney County. Now it seems to me like they are paying more attention to that aspect. They do want people to go out to vote … Compared to what I’ve seen in the past, I think they’re doing a lot.”

In other states, Villagran said, the best way to reach Hispanic voters was through extensive, personal campaigns — knocking on doors, face-to-face interaction, bilingual civic engagement events — or reaching out digitally through Spanish TV and radio stations. Both approaches took ample resources, which can be barriers in themselves, he said. Local political parties or campaigns also could be more intentional about reaching out to, informing and energizing Hispanic voters.

From an institutional aspect, he said, as far as he’s seen, Finney County was doing pretty well.

 

Contact Amber Friend at afriend@gctelegram.com.