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Polling the People is a five-part series on voting rights, access and engagement in Santa Barbara County. Through in-depth feature storytelling, the series examines issues including Latino voting access, voter turnout across the county and ways to get undocumented people involved in the political process. Polling the People is made possible by a grant from the Sunflower Foundation.

Polling the People: What's stopping Santa Barbara County's Latino communities from voting?

Santa Maria City Hall
Library of Congress
Santa Maria City Hall

The cities of Santa Maria and Guadalupe have the highest percentage of Latino residents in Santa Barbara County, along the lowest voter turnout numbers in the county. There's a variety of factors keeping Latino residents of North County from engaging with the political process, but there are some some possible solutions as well.

Unlike the rest of Santa Barbara County, the vast majority of people living in the Santa Maria Valley are Latino. According to the most recent census data, about 77% of people living in the city of Santa Maria are Hispanic/Latino. In Guadalupe, that number is almost 90%. According to the Housing Trust Fund of Santa Barbara County, Santa Maria alone houses about 64% of the county’s farmworker population.

“A large part of the community is involved in the agricultural industry in some way or capacity,” Daniel Segura said.

Segura is with the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE). He’s a first generation Latino who now advocates for farmworker rights in the Santa Maria Valley.

“My parents are farmworkers. My dad still works in the agricultural industry. And so it's a really important part of our identity,” Segura said.

Latinos have the lowest voter turnout and registration rates among all racial groups in the country, according to research from UCLA’s Latino Politics & Policy Institute. And there is a similar trend in Santa Barbara County.

The county estimatesthat about 28% of eligible Latino voters voted in the 2020 general election, compared to about 68% of non-Hispanic white voters.


Segura said Latino voters’ distrust in government is one reason those numbers are so low. He said he’s seen that in his own family and the wider Latino community in Santa Maria.

“I heard a lot from older folks, what's the point in voting, you know, it's a very small group of the same elected officials running again. Our mayor has been mayor for a very long time, and so a lot of folks just don't see a lot of mobility or a lot of changes happening,” Segura said.

Segura said another reason behind the low voter turn-out is because low-income Latino families are often busy working and providing for their families. Voting may just not be a priority.

“When you have to work one job that takes up all your time or multiple jobs, this isn't really your priority. Your priority is really meeting your basic needs,” Segura said.

Segura said in many Latino families, the responsibility of providing voter information to everyone usually falls on the first generation child. He played that role in his own family.

“I would help my mom kind of find those resources and find that information and she's a citizen so she did her job, she votes, but that's not something that she's necessarily engaging with,” he said.

Besides a lack of resources and information, high housing costs are another factor keeping people away from voting.

In 2021, UC Merced conducted a study across California and found the majority of Latino farmworkers in the state are renters. And the Santa Maria area, like all of the Central Coast, has one of the most expensive housing markets in not just the state but the nation.

Congressman Salud Carbajal represents Santa Barbara County in the House of Representatives. He said one key way to improve Latino engagement in the political process is to make information more accessible.

“We're always doing everything we can to translate information in our social media, in our outreach that we're going overboard to make sure that we're outreaching the Latino Community, just like we do the rest of the communities because we want as many people to engage as possible,” Carbajal said.

Santa Barbara County Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission
The Santa Barbara County Independent Redistricting Commission grouped Santa Maria and Guadalupe into one county supervisor district in the last redistricting cycle.

Carbajal said one way he reaches the county’s Latino community is through public meetings in Santa Maria and Guadalupe.

“Some people aren't always engaged. They get intimidated with a setting like this. So we're trying to provide different avenues by which people can get engaged, participate [and] show up,” Carbajal said.

Daniel Segura from CAUSE agreed that community meetings are important. He thinks the City of Santa Maria and Santa Barbara County do a good job providing voter information and spaces for the Latino community.

But, he said it’s important to acknowledge that even town halls aren’t always accessible to low-income people.

“A lot of the time these folks are not able to say I have an hour to attend a town hall. There's childcare to consider, there's transportation to consider,” Segura said.

Segura said he wants to see more diversity in the political process. He thinks many community members have a misconception about what government is and isn’t.

“That it's just these elected officials making these decisions for us. And that's not true. I personally would love to see more folks that represent the community that I grew up in being a part of those decisions,” Segura said.

The reasons behind low voter engagement in the Santa Maria Valley are complex. But there’s a large group of people who don’t vote for one clear reason: they can’t. Next week, we’ll dive into how undocumented people engage in politics and government in ways besides voting.

Polling the People is made possible by a grant from the Sunflower Foundation.

Gabriela Fernandez is a general assignment reporter at KCBX News. She graduated from Sacramento State with a BA in Political Science. During her senior year, she interned at CapRadio in their podcast department, and later worked for them as an Associate Producer on the TahoeLand podcast.
Benjamin Purper was News Director of KCBX from May of 2021 to September of 2023. He came from California’s Inland Empire, where he spent three years as a reporter and Morning Edition host at KVCR in San Bernardino. Dozens of his stories have aired on KQED’s California Report, and his work has broadcast on NPR's news magazines, as well. In addition to radio, Ben has worked as a newspaper reporter and freelance writer.
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  • Santa Barbara County is sometimes called a “land of extremes.” That’s especially true of the divide between the majority-Latino agricultural communities of North County and the majority-white, highly educated areas of South County.
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