Sheriff Deputies, Poll Worker Harass Latinos in Swing State Colorado

Colorado's Latino voters could well decide this election--but some will have to overcome harassment to cast their ballots.

By Aura Bogado Nov 06, 2012

Although both presidential candidates stopped their visits to Colorado days ago, it remains a crucial swing state in this election. With just nine electoral votes, and its distance from the eastern part of the country, the Centennial State has lost its spot in the national media, but may prove important in this tight race. 

That’s why canvassers have been busy encouraging people to vote here. But it hasn’t necessarily been easy to either canvas or show up to the polling station for some Latinos. One canvasser, who works with a coalition of groups leading a get out the vote initiative told me that, during her training, she was told, "And watch out for police. They don’t always think people who look like us should be out in the street." 

Not many job descriptions include a warning that the work may entail police harassment, but this is Colorado, where demographics are changing. In 2010, the Latino population hit one million–accounting for every one in five Coloradans. As more and more Latinos turn 18, it’s that younger generation that may hold the key to sway this election. The Latino vote here is expected to increase 15 percent over the last presidential election, accounting for nearly 9 percent of the state’s electorate. 

The quiet, rural town of Pueblo West, just a two hour drive from Denver, is a mixed neighborhood that’s part of the greater city of Pueblo, which makes up more than 40 percent of the state’s entire Latino population. And canvassers there are eager to encourage all voters to get out to the polls. One canvasser, who declined to have his name for publication, was doing just that last week when he ran in to trouble. He and his canvassing partner, who are both Latino, noticed local Sheriffs were sometimes tailing them, but they continued their work. 

They drove to a local convenience store for snacks, but when they got back into their car, they realized they couldn’t back away from the parking spot because it was blocked by two Pueblo County Sheriff’s vehicles. They were both asked to show identification, and deputies ran these for outstanding warrants. The canvassers explained they were simply urging people to get out and vote, but the deputies replied that local residents called in to complain about two suspicious Latinos in the neighborhood. The deputies then told them they should quit immediately, and "call it a day."

And it’s not just Pueblo County where Latinos feel they’re being harassed. I spoke with one woman who was a first time voter in Boulder. A mother who’s originally from Central America, she also declined to have her name in print for fear of retaliation. She became a citizen last year, and was so excited to cast her ballot that she voted early last week. But the process was confusing for her, and after she came home and spoke with family members, she realized she had accidently skipped a portion of her ballot. She returned with her daughter and son-in-law the next day, to inquire if she could fix her ballot, or have it annulled and cast a new one in its place. 

That’s when she says things got out of hand. One poll worker, who was white, began to get angry. He told her she would be charged with a felony, have to pay fines, and serve time in prison. He then rose from his seat, and she says she was afraid he might strike at her son-in-law. Fellow poll workers, she says, all went absolutely silent, and essentially embarrassed him from any further harassment. This new voter told me that had her daughter and son-in-law not been there with her that day to protect her, she would never consider voting again. 

The Department of Justice is monitoring elections in Denver County, and hundreds of volunteer poll workers, recruited through the Colorado Civic Engagement Roundtable, will be making sure that voters aren’t harassed at the polls. But they may meet their match if poll challengers begin questioning voters’ right to cast a ballot. True the Vote, which held a summit here earlier this year, claims that they, too are dispatching thousands of monitors. 

If today’s outcome comes down to Colorado, that will mean it may likely come down to the state’s Latino voters. But they may have to overcome unnecessary obstacles to cast their ballots.