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Time Keeps Many Voters In El Paso, Texas, From Casting Ballots


In El Paso, Texas, only half of the registered voters went to the polls in 2016, and even fewer voted in the 2014 midterms. It is a city of immigrants and of the poor, and where many people say they don't have the time or the will to cast a ballot. NPR's Leila Fadel wanted to go find out why.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: At Bowie Bakery, customers choose from trays of Mexican sweet breads, tres leches cake and other treats that fill the glass cases. For decades, it's been the go-to spot to satisfy a sweet tooth. Christina Rodriguez (ph) orders cookies for her oldest daughter's Quinceanera. She barely knows when voting days are in El Paso.

CHRISTINA RODRIGUEZ: You know, just the other day, I saw somebody post something on Facebook about one of the elections, and I was like, I don't even know who's running. I should, you know, look into it.

FADEL: She can't really remember the last time she voted, but she remembers the line was long. So she opts out, especially because she doesn't want to go to the polls uninformed. She's a single, working mom, and she can't spare the time to figure out who's running and for what.

RODRIGUEZ: But I really don't think about it. It's kind of sad to say, but I don't think about like, OK, well, what can be better in my life? It's like, I do what I can do to make my life better. I don't depend on them to change things for me.

FADEL: By them, she means elected officials. It's how it's always been in her family. No one votes. Behind the counter, baker Jose Ramirez (ph) packs pastries for customers. The 20-year-old says he wants health care for all. He drives across the Mexican border for treatment there. He's upset about the separation of families.

JOSE RAMIREZ: I'm really into politics and stuff. The thing is that sometimes it's not as efficient to go voting. It's just that only the time and work and stuff are things that do not allow me to do so.

FADEL: So he doesn't do it. Almost every person I speak to in the bakery doesn't or rarely votes. And most don't know about a local guy that's caught the nation's attention, Beto O'Rourke, a Democrat from El Paso challenging Republican Ted Cruz for his Senate seat. Lisa Wise is El Paso's election administrator. She says there are a lot of reasons people don't vote in this border city - corruption...

LISA WISE: Their county judge has been imprisoned. County board members, school district members have been sent to prison for things like bribery and things like that. And that wasn't that long ago. And I do think some things like that take a while for voters to get past.

FADEL: ...There are so many voting days, it gets confusing.

WISE: And we have more elections than any state I've ever seen, at random times during the year.

FADEL: Most of the population is first, second and third-generation.

WISE: Voting is often taught, and it may take a couple of generations to become a habit.

FADEL: So when Wise moved from Nebraska to El Paso, Texas, she turned her attention to the schools. The counties developed a curriculum for middle schools, high schools and, in some cases, elementary schools to teach the habit of voting. School is the only reason Jairo Pallares (ph) knows about the elections in November. We meet at a church block party.

JAIRO PALLARES: I just took U.S. history so I'm pretty, like, knowledgeable about that 'cause our U.S. history teacher was, like, encouraging us to vote and stuff.

FADEL: Come November, he'll be 18 and, if all goes as planned, a citizen. No one in his family has ever voted. He might be the first. Jimmy Moreno (ph) and his friend, Bernadette Aramoare (ph) are leaving the block party when I catch up to them. They're habitual voters, but Aramoare says they're not the norm.

BERNADETTE ARAMOARE: I've heard that time and time again, English and Spanish, (speaking Spanish), what for? No matter if we vote or not, it's already rigged. Everybody knows who's going to win and regardless of what political party it is.

FADEL: El Paso is a place where people say no one really fights for their vote. But there are signs things are changing. In the primaries, voter turnout was a modest 37 percent, but that was higher than it's been since 2002.

Leila Fadel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.