The Ms. Q&A: Voto Latino’s María Teresa Kumar on the Latino Vote, Disinformation and How to Combat it

The Ms. Q&A: Maria Teresa Kumar Discusses How Voto Latino Used AI to Register Younger Voters, Proliferation of Disinformation and How to Combat it.
“I dedicated my life to Voto Latino because … I knew we needed to be politically empowered as a community to help safeguard our families,” said María Teresa Kumar, president and CEO of Voto Latino. (Ralph Alswang / Flickr)

The Latino vote was instrumental in putting Joe Biden in the White House and sending four new senators to Congress.

Many of those new voters were registered due to efforts by Voto Latino, an organization that registered more than 600,000 Latinos during the 2020 election cycle and helped mobilize 4 million more Latinos to vote in key battleground states—helping to flip Arizona and Georgia, where the margins were only a difference of about 10,000 votes to get Biden elected. 

Ms. reporter Lisa Rabasca Roepe spoke with María Teresa Kumar, president and CEO of Voto Latino, about the organization’s early beginnings, how it used artificial intelligence (AI) to find new voters and the prevalence of disinformation in the Latino community.

Lisa Rabasca Roepe: What prompted you and Rosario Dawson to start Voto Latino in 2004 and how has the organization and the challenges facing the Latino community changed in those 16 years?

María Teresa Kumar: Rosario started Voto Latino originally as a media campaign in partnership with MTV, with another gentleman called Phil Colón, and they were doing it because it was the first time that Latinos technically were considered the second largest demographic in the country. They brought me in… [and asked] do you think that Voto Latino can be more than just a PR campaign?

I funded Voto Latino for the first three years on my credit card. I tell people never to do that. We had a good idea, but we didn’t have access to capital. The reason I dedicated my life to it was because I grew up in California under [former governor] Pete Wilson, the original guy who was promoting anti-immigrant sentiment, and I witnessed how people in my family and my neighbors were initially targeted and felt threatened. I knew that we needed to be politically empowered as a community to help safeguard our families.

Had we started Voto Latino in 2016, we wouldn’t have been ready for the moment of Donald Trump, and it was simply through the learnings and iterations of Voto Latino that we were able to double down and know what we need to do in order to get him out of office.

Roepe: Despite COVID-19, Voto Latino registered more than 600,000 Latinos during this past election cycle. How was Voto Latino able to do that?

Kumar: I’ve had two challenging leadership moments. The first one was convincing people that they had to reimagine how to communicate with Latinos, that they should use the internet and they should talk to us in English.

The second one came 12 years later with the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election. We did fantastic work in 2016, but what did we need to do in order to meet the 2020 election moment? That involved hitting a major reset button. That meant revamping our board, looking at how we invest in infrastructure. Also how do I bring more seasoned people into the organization to help us?

I’m on the board of the Global Shapers with the World Economic Forum, and in 2018 I attended a conference in Davos around AI and how they were using AI to help identify refugees before people became refugees, so that they could provide them with resources, and I remember walking out of that meeting and calling my new board member, Sonal Shah, who under [President Barack] Obama’s administration, was head of social innovation. I said, Sonal, what if we figure out how to borrow best practices of AI and apply them to our own datasets? We’re actually sitting on a half-million voter files.

That’s basically how we were able to scale from registering 200,000 in 2018 to 600,000 in 2020, We wanted younger [voters]. We wanted mostly female [voters]. By the methods that we used, 44 percent of the people we registered did not appear on any voter files, meaning that we were targeting the actual people that needed to be targeted and that’s how we were able to scale.

We actually were able to target 3.7 million low-propensity voters. Campaigns don’t talk to someone who doesn’t have a voting history. The challenge is that 60 percent of Latinos are under the age of 33 so, by default, they’re never going to get a phone call because they’re just starting a voting history.

We borrowed some best practices and basically modeled the people that we wanted to go after, after ourselves, if that makes sense, after our datasets that already existed.

Seventy-one of the people we ended up registering were under the age of 34, and in early voting, while 6 out of 10 older Latinos were voting for Biden, 7 out of 10 of the people we registered voted for Biden.

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Roepe: What effect did that have on the 2020 election?

Kumar: In a place like Georgia, where we registered 36,000 in time for the presidential election, Joe Biden won by less than 12,000.

In Nevada, we registered 67,000. He won by less than 22,000.

Even Wisconsin, where he won by 18,000, we registered 7,000, and so, in the states when everybody was on pins and needles trying to figure out those last six states, we were in all of them.

Our work sent four members to the Senate, and we helped turn two states blue, and we helped turned two states purple—Texas and North Carolina.

“Our work sent four members to the Senate, and we helped turn two states blue, and we helped turned two states purple—Texas and North Carolina.”

Roepe: Leading up to the election, there was a lot of concern about whether Joe Biden would do well with the Latino vote. I know, in the end, he did, for the most part, but I know there were other states, like Florida, where it was a mixed bag.

What do the Democrats and maybe even the media misunderstand about the Latino vote?

Kumar: We would have funders tell us that they wanted to invest in Florida, and I would be very clear with them that we would invest because they’re asking us to, but that wasn’t actually our recommendation, and the reason that wasn’t our recommendation was because we started seeing the real effects of disinformation and misinformation coming out of Florida back in March 2019.

And it was heavy, and it was pervasive, and we knew that we didn’t have enough time to undo that. We employed an inoculation strategy in 2016 with roughly 10 celebrity voices talking about Voto Latino and doing stuff for us. We knew that disinformation was already impacting the Latino community at scale, not just in Florida, but we were starting to see it in other parts.

In June [2020], we created the Voto Latino Impact Council, and we identified over 267 influencers online. The purpose was to provide people with the real information so, if they got disinformation to go to your polling place yesterday, we’re like, no, you have to go today. We also partnered with Nike and Zumiez, and we created original content for their employees and, in some cases, their audiences.

One of the things we learned was that our parents and grandparents, who are not English dominant, became the targets of disinformation. The work that we were doing targeting young people was working, because we heard so many stories where young people would show their grandmother something coming out of Voto Latino saying, no, Grandma, that’s not true because Voto Latino said this.

We just launched, along with Media Matters and the former chair of the Democratic Party Chair Tom Perez, the Latino Anti-Disinformation Lab where we are going to be monitoring disinformation and trying to learn the epicenters of the disinformation, and then trying to figure out how to combat it.

“We started seeing the real effects of disinformation and misinformation coming out of Florida back in March 2019. And it was heavy, and it was pervasive, and we knew that we didn’t have enough time to undo that.”

Roepe: What are the most common pieces of disinformation?

Kumar: The wrong date to go vote, the wrong polling place, telling people that they can’t vote if they haven’t paid their electricity bills.

Right now the disinformation against the COVID-19 vaccine is very real. I could tell you, personally I had to convince my mom to take her vaccine, and she wouldn’t tell me why she was so hesitant. She forwarded me this disinformation that she received from someone from her gym. And basically, the crux of it was a woman in a lab coat who looked absolutely in authority, who claimed to be a pharmacist, was telling people in Spanish not to take the vaccine because it’s “a technology never used in human bodies before.”

Roepe: What legislation and policies do you think Latino voters are most hopeful that the Biden administration will either address or pass over the next four years?

Kumar: The Latino community has been absolutely devastated by COVID-19 health, wealth and education wise. The mortality rate, sadly, is disproportionately on the Latino community. A lot of it is because we are in multigenerational households. As a result, you have a family member that has to go work and then comes back and can easily spread it to their elderly [family members].

We need to get as many people vaccinated as possible. We need to address the real poverty that people have entered as a result.

We did a study with Change Research in December. Out of the people we surveyed, two out of five folks have either dipped into their savings or have exhausted their savings. Close to six out of 10 were behind in rent. Seven out of 10, [knew] someone who had COVID-19, and of that, three out of 10 knew someone who had died of COVID-19, and these are young people disproportionately. Close to three out of five people didn’t have enough food. They were food insecure, and that wasn’t the case before the pandemic.

Let’s get economic relief and recovery into people’s hands, and in that recovery, we should recognize the jobs of the essential workers who are, in large amounts, undocumented, and how do we provide them with relief and security? One of the conversations we’ve had with the White House is how do we get them on a path of becoming a green card holder if they’re eligible.

If they’re a DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] recipient or a TPS [Temporary Protected Status] recipient, how do we get that fast so that there’s not that insecurity of being fearful of getting deported in the midst of a pandemic where they may be the only head of household. How do we get our kids back to school? The mental health that is already plaguing our young people is not small, and [for] Latinos, sadly, even more so. There’s a lot to rebuild in America right now.

Roepe: I understand that your grandmother has given you some great advice. I was hoping you’d share it with our readers.

Kumar: My grandmother is a tough Latina-Colombian woman, and she would often say that the world made her that way. She was 13 when she was married, I don’t think by choice. Her partner was chosen for her, and her partner was roughly 13 years her senior, and by the time my grandmother was 26 years old, she had eight children, and her then husband decided that that was too much responsibility. He walked out on her and left her with eight children, 26 years old, and with an eighth grade education, and being a black descendant in Colombia, she basically had all the strikes against her, and my grandmother, I would say, is one of the most fiercest women I know.

When I started with Voto Latino, I would get discouraged because I heard tons of no’s, and she finally looked at me, and she said, had I waited for someone to say yes, I would not have been able to bring up my eight children so you have to understand that no is for everybody else, and you don’t need everyone to say yes.

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Lisa Rabasca Roepe is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance journalist who writes about women in the workplace and issues related to gender and diversity. Her work has appeared in Fast Company, Business Insider, the Boston Globe, the Christian Science Monitor, Marketplace, Quartz, CQ Researcher and The Week. Follow her on Twitter: @lisarab.