Rocking The Vote: Maria Teresa Kumar & Rosario Dawson

Maria Teresa Kumar and Rosario Dawson's civic engagement group, Voto Latino, combines technology and celebrity to empower the young Hispanic American population.

The Hispanic-American vote is a growing political force. New Jersey's new Republican governor Chris Christie's win earlier this month was attributed in part to his focus on gaining Latino support. Newark now has its first Latino mayor, and the young Latino vote was vital to President Obama's 2012 re-election. The political advocacy group, Voto Latino, is largely responsible for this mobilization of the increasingly influential Hispanic-American population.

Headed up by actress Rosario Dawson and its founding President, the Emmy-nominated news correspondent Maria Teresa Kumar, Voto Latino uses celebrity influence and a mix of the latest in mobile and Internet technology to educate young Hispanic Americans about the legal system and political trends that affect their lives.

Mobile has played an especially important role in Voto Latino’s civic engagement plan. It was one of the first political groups to use SMS text campaigns to get voters to the polls and has adapted quickly to reach young American Hispanics, which according to the Hispanic Institute, has one of the highest rates of cell-phone ownership, minute usage, and digital media consumption.

Maria Teresa Kumar and Rosario Dawson

In 2012, Dawson and Kumar made it onto Fast Company's Most Creative People list for their innovative approach to empowering young Hispanic Americans and, in turn, altering the political landscape.

Voto Latino's creative and adaptive model manages to connect with and mobilize an important sector of the American population--and the lessons learned in building it are applicable across a range of campaigns and industries.

Voto Latino has been a leader in the use of mobile technology for civic engagement--what are some ways that mobile didn’t work the way you needed it to, and how did you adapt?

Maria Teresa Kumar: Voto Latino in partnership with Mobile Voter launched the first national voter registration via text back in 2006. This was before smartphones--so filling out a form via a back-and-forth series of questions proved cumbersome. However, the text medium worked super well for Get-Out-The-Vote efforts. In fact, we later learned that by simply sending a text message reminder on voting day to Latino Millennials, their participation at the polls was 3 points higher than their white peers.



What have you learned from communicating with such a large network?

First, it's important to identify the hyper user and partner with them. It may sound counterintuitive but we've found it's not the quantity of your followers but the quality--individuals who are leaders and influencers in their networks. For example, 25,000 people follow us on Twitter, but those individuals reach over 38 million people collectively. As a result, when we set a goal to trend on Twitter we often do it within 20 minutes of the challenge.

As an example, on National Voter Registration Day, a national holiday that Voto Latino cofounded and is recognized by all 50 secretaries of state, we mobilized our audience to have #CelebrateNVRD trend not once but twice during the day! The message was simple--register to vote on that day.

We find that the more informative, fun, and easily shareable a message is, the more it succeeds. And most importantly, communications must be respectful--feeds, whether on Facebook or Twitter, are a person’s personal space.

What has been the most effective method for getting young Latinos to cross over from simply receiving text messages or simply using an app to actually showing up at the polls?

We’ve found that a simple reminder on Election Day with a link to their polling location increases turnout by over 7%. In addition, Voto Latino recognized that people wanted to volunteer in the comfort of their homes--so in 2006 we set up the first virtual call centers where volunteers could use their free weekend cell-phone minutes to call voters on the weekend before elections. Candidate Obama used our model on steroids in the 2008 elections.

One reason that Voto Latino has chosen to focus on young Latino voters is because of their heavy mobile usage and digital consumption. Do you have any plans to expand the audience or have you in mind any initiatives to help more Hispanic Americans, not just youth, gain access to mobile technology?

We also focused on Latino Millennials because they’re English dominant and they were underserved. At the time, no one in the political or in the mainstream media for that matter targeted them in their native language, English, while respecting cultural sensibilities. This is so hard to believe given that it is reported that over 50% of Latino voters are under 40 years old, 60% of all Latinos are U.S. born, and over 66,000 Latino youth turn 18 each month!



We combined our knowledge of their early-adopter tech habits along with language and culture to create campaigns that persuaded them to change behavior. And along the way, we’ve influenced and helped modernize how campaigns and other advocacy organizations pursue their efforts by encouraging the use of both new technologies but also communications to reach out to the Latino audience in general. Our work has been a combination of using the latest technology for shaking up the political process while also breaking down stereotypes on who the American Latino actually is.



Fast Company Mobilizing has covered other innovators who use basic mobile phone tech, like Shop Soko, whose technology allows African artisans to sell their work on the web via SMS texts. Is Voto Latino thinking about people who do not have access to smartphone technology?

Yes, not only do we have an app where people can register to vote and access voter information but we also rely heavily on simple SMS because we recognize that not everyone has a smartphone, but cell-phone penetration is incredibly high among Latinos of all ages.



Can you tell us more about the Voto Latino mobile app? What factors were taken into consideration while it was being built and what is it designed to do?

We built the app with the user in mind. They needed to be able to register to vote, provide an easy-to-digest voter guide, find a polling place, and the ability to report any trouble or irregularities a voter may encounter when going to the polls. We then layered it with a Public Service Announcement that we’d change depending on the election calendar. We wanted it to be easy and functional.



What developments in the mobile landscape is Voto Latino watching or hoping for? What would be most useful to you in your efforts, both on the technical side and the user side?

A cost-effective tool that can help us monitor how far our reach is. We can currently calculate up to the 3rd degree of sharing but beyond that, the analytical tool costs are still prohibited for an organization of our size. It would be great to identify our "hyper" user beyond our celebrities and media partners--the young person that is extremely active whose postings go viral. If we can identify them, then we can better cultivate them and better identify talent for our work.

Additionally, we're constantly monitoring Latino Millennial smartphone use, trying to stay at the head of the game by being on the lookout of what social networking platform they'll start using next!

You can follow Voto Latino at @votolatino, Maria Teresa Kumar at @MariaTeresa1, and Rosario Dawson at @rosariodawson.

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[Image: Flickr user Robert Couse-Baker]

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