‘Terrified of losing their rights’: abortion is a leading issue for Arizona’s Latino voters

<span>Abortion rights activists in Phoenix, Arizona, on 17 April 2024.</span><span>Photograph: Liliana Salgado/Reuters</span>
Abortion rights activists in Phoenix, Arizona, on 17 April 2024.Photograph: Liliana Salgado/Reuters

Throughout her political career, Raquel Terán has been advised to avoid talking too much about abortion.

“I’ve been told: ‘Be careful speaking about the issue when you’re running in a Latino district,’” said Terán, a congressional candidate in Arizona and former chair of the state’s Democratic party.

The conventional political wisdom was that Latino voters – many of whom are religious – opposed abortion access. That has never squared with Terán’s experience. “I go to mass and I believe in a woman’s right to choose,” she said.

But during this election cycle – perhaps more than ever before – the issue could be a decisive factor for Latino voters in Arizona. Longtime political operatives, progressive Latino organizers and Latino candidates like Terán say they’ve seen it compel even those who have grown disillusioned by electoral politics.

“Abortion has become a top priority for a lot of the people who vote all the time, and also the people who don’t vote all the time,” said Terán. “Because voters are terrified of losing their rights.”

This summer, the state supreme court’s reinstatement of an extreme, civil war-era abortion law has fueled support for a November ballot initiative that could enshrine abortion rights. Though lawmakers repealed the law in May, it will remain in effect though the end of June before it is replaced by a 15-week abortion ban.

“I have had people running out of the house to sign the petition,” said Alejandra Gomez, the executive director of the progressive group Lucha, which has been collecting endorsements for the ballot initiative. “That has never happened to me before.”

Related: Complete abortion ban in South Carolina more likely after primaries

Even though the campaign collected enough signatures in April for the measure to appear on the ballot in November, organizers said they would continue to gather support – anticipating legal challenges and audits from Republicans seeking to disqualify the initiative.

On a searing afternoon in late May, as the temperatures in the metro Phoenix area began to tip into the triple digits, thousands of volunteers deployed to coffee shops, libraries and local breweries to gather more signatures. Canvassers for Democratic candidates carried Abortion Access for All petitions alongside their normal literature.

Enthusiasm for the initiative has surprised even longtime political operatives in the state. Views on abortion within Arizona’s Latino communities can vary widely, especially across generational lines, said Enrique Davis Mazlum, the Arizona state director for UnidosUS, a Hispanic civil rights and advocacy group.

What many polls have historically failed to capture is that even if voters don’t support abortion personally, they still believe in abortion access. “Even if they are Catholic and might not themselves choose to get an abortion, they don’t want the government to decide for them,” Davis Mazlum said.

Polls now indicate that growing majorities of Latino voters support the right to abortion access.

Surveys from the Pew Research Center have found that support for abortion access among Hispanic voters nationally has ticked up over the past two decades – from about 47% in 2007-2008 to about 60% in 2022, after the supreme court overturned Roe v Wade.

In Arizona, a 2022 poll by UnidosUS and Mi Familia Vota found that 80% of Latino voters in Arizona agreed or somewhat agreed that abortion should remain legal, regardless of their personal beliefs on the issue.

That poll, which was released shortly after the fall of Roe v Wade, captured a moment when voters were especially worried about reproductive rights. The reinstatement of the 1864 near-total abortion ban earlier this year has been another inflection point. “We’ve seen that issue again at the top of mind of a lot of voters and particularly Latino voters,” said Stella Rouse, director of the Hispanic Research Center at Arizona State University.

Junelle Cavero Harnal, a Democrat from south Phoenix who was appointed to a vacated seat in Arizona’s House of Representatives just one day before the legislature voted on a repeal of the civil war-era abortion ban, said it was an issue that her constituents have raised on a daily basis.

As she campaigns for a full term in a diverse district where more than 80% of her constituents are people of color and about 58% are Latino, she said: “Usually what people want to talk to me about is abortion, the cost of living and the conflict in Israel.”

That bore true on a searing weekday evening at the end of May as Cavero Harnal – in a baseball cap and campaign T-shirt – was knocking on doors in her own neighborhood. “I have two daughters and a granddaughter,” one woman volunteered after answering the door. “And all our rights are being taken away.”

For Sophia Mendoza, 17 – whose family has known Cavero Harnal for years – the reinstatement of the 1864 ban came as a shock. “I hadn’t even been paying much attention to the news when the ban happened,” said Mendoza.

“I talked about it with my mom and sister and my mom brought up the fact that she’s had multiple miscarriages, and how we shouldn’t take away anyone’s right to have or not have children,” chimed in Mendoza’s friend Emily Peña, 18. “It brought up so many feelings”

Organizers said they hope the anger voters feel will drive turnout in November.

“When we’re at the doors, and we begin to share that President Biden actually supports abortion access, that completely changes the conversation,” Cavero Harna said. Even voters who are disappointed with the president’s progress on the economy or immigration have signalled they would consider voting for Biden. “This is the way that our communities are coming around to entertaining voting for the top of the ticket,” she said.

Biden’s campaign appears to have picked up that the issue could be a factor in its favor, coming out with an abortion campaign that targets Latino men. Ads running in Arizona and Nevada feature Cesar Carreon – a carpenter who identifies himself as a marine who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I know what tough is,” Carreon says in the ad. “And a guy like Donald Trump that attacks women, takes away their freedom and brags about it? That’s not tough.”

He continues: “I’m with Joe Biden, because he’ll give my daughters their freedom back.”

It may help Democrats and progressives that voters can also see through Republican efforts to appeal to their community with social conservatism, said Alfredo Gutierrez, a former Democratic state senate leader who has over the decades fought back numerous Republicans’ efforts to erode abortion rights in Arizona.

As the abortion access ballot measure gains steam, Republicans have promoted a “Secure the Border” initiative to galvanize conservatives that would empower law enforcement to profile and arrest anyone they suspect might have crossed the border illegally. They’ve also pushed a number of efforts to roll back voting rights.

“It’s always amazing to me that the same people who on the one hand are attacking immigrants, attacking us for being here, those same people believe we will support them on the abortion issue,” Gutierrez said. “That’s an aberration that borders on psychosis.”

Then again, he said, his community has long supported the right to choose. Back when he was state senate leader, he recalled once squirming in the pews when the priest at his Catholic church spoke on abortion. “He talked about what a sin it was, and how still some members of the church supported it, and I knew he was talking about me,” Gutierrez said.

After the sermon, as Gutierrez was eating menudo in the church basement, a group of elder women in the congregation pulled him aside, he recalled: “They said: ‘Don’t listen to that. You’re doing the right thing.’”