Pedro Cortés: 'A historical election in Pennsylvania'
Don't miss an exclusive opportunity to hear from PA Secretary of State Pedro Cortés about the future of elections in our state on Oct. 29.
It’s been a busy year for Pennsylvania’s Secretary of State Pedro Cortés.
During the first few months leading the State Department he focused on empowering the electoral process and ensuring that those eligible to vote have a significant opportunity to do so before the upcoming November 3rd elections.
"This election is possibly the most important and most historic in decades because in addition to electing mayors, city councilors, among others, voters will elect three judges to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania,” Cortés said.
"The Supreme Court is composed of seven judges and we’ll have the opportunity to select nearly half of the members. Those are the same judges who in the coming years, if for example the Voter ID bill is reintroduced, will decide its approval," Cortés said. "They are the same judges who will decide whether or not, for example implement an ‘English Only’ bill in Pennsylvania, which ends many opportunities to distribute information in Spanish.”
When he took office last January he stated that he is well aware of the state’s low voter turnout, especially in Philadelphia. In the 2011 election only 26 percent of registered voters cast their vote, which means that only a quarter of the state’s voters had a say in our current elected officials.
"My expectation is that we can significantly increase those numbers. As a community we have such an important role but until we don’t make our voice heard, particularly through the polls and the electoral process, many people will ignore us," Cortés said. “That voice is important for everyone.”
‘What is good for Latinos is good for the state’
Cortés has been living in Harrisburg for the last 25 years.
In his opinion, the State’s Capital is a gem in terms of geography as well as for the cost and quality of life it offers.
"I always say this a very strategic location to address the Latino community. The largest group of Latinos is in Philadelphia, but the greatest proportional growth is at the center of the state."
According to Cortés, Route 222, which runs from Easton to York, is the corridor with the largest Latino population growth.
"Philadelphia is still the center of our community. It’s where we settled our roots and established ourselves," Cortes said. "Of the nearly one million Latinos in Pennsylvania, more than 55 percent are Puerto Rican, Lancaster being the city with the largest Puerto Rican population.”
To Cortés, it’s an excellent time to be Latino in Pennsylvania and throughout the U.S. Numbers are growing significantly. From 2011 to 2014, the state’s Latino population grew by about 100,000, which gives them greater visibility in the political landscape.
But still, Latinos are far less represented in public office.
“Currently there are seven secretaries of state in the United States that are Latino. In 41 of the 50 states in the country the secretary of state is elected. This shows that our community is growing not only in numbers but also in influence and that is very positive," Cortés said, adding that some progress has been made in Pennsylvania in recent years.
Cortés was born in Puerto Rico and became the first Latino to be part of the governor’s cabinet when he was appointed as Secretary under the Ed Rendell administration in 2003.
For three years he was also chair of the Governor’s Advisory Commission on Latino Affairs (GACLA). It was during this time that he received the best professional advice he ever got from Carlos Graupera, the current executive director of the Hispanic Center of Lancaster. Cortés said he had several conversations with Graupera on how to develop his leadership at GACLA:
"He told me 'Pedro … as Latinos we are characterized by hard work. Make the most of every opportunity not for personal gain but for the common good. Because what is good for Latinos is good for the state," Cortés recalled. "And what's good for the state is good for the country, and what is good for the country is good for the world."
Cortés was nominated for his current position by Governor Tom Wolf last January and confirmed by the Senate in June, making him the longest serving secretary in the state’s history.
“Sometimes you question if you can make a difference. Graupera’s advice served me well coming into this position, because no one had seen a Latino in it and many people questioned whether we have the talent and ability to do the job," he added.
Of course, no one reaches such a position simply for being Latino.
"At the State Department we have many Latinos like Adriana Arvizo, director of the Office of Communications and Press, and Francisco Miranda, director of the Bureau of Corporations and Charitable Organizations. But I emphasize that people who are in these positions of leadership, are there because of their own merits,” Cortés said.
In his personal experience the influence of his mother, who taught him values of integrity, hard work and education were key in his professional development.
"Since my beginning as a social worker at the Department of Public Welfare until today as Secretary of State, to have a bicultural and bilingual culture has given me the opportunity not only to connect with the mainstream culture in the U.S. but also to have the understanding that is very valuable to work with our Latino community," Cortés said. "And certainly that benefits the governor and the administration."
'No one can be elected without the Latino vote’
One of the main goals of the Department of State this year was to create more meaningful and accessible opportunities for voter registration.
On August 27, Wolf and Cortés announced that Pennsylvania would launch an online voter registration initiative in both English and Spanish, becoming the 23rd state to do so.
"It’s a natural extension, our citizens want the convenience of registering to vote using their own computer or mobile device," Cortés said.
For the secretary the latter project is exceptional because the state had not implemented any electoral reform in over 15 years. From the beginning of the project Cortés had great expectations for the results that this new technology could bring, hoping that at least 25,000 people would register.
"We ended up having 32,428 residents who used the online application. This has been a resounding success," Cortés said. "We were also the first state in the country to organize a Twitter Town Hall to promote our online registration campaign."
The office is in the process of modernizing all its areas to capitalize on technological advances.
One significant change in the electoral process is that all requests, instructions and informational materials are available in both English and Spanish online.
"All the information we have in our website VotesPA.com is available in Spanish in order to recognize Latinos as the fastest growing community of color in the state and in the country," Cortés said. "It has become part of our culture at the State Department."
According to the Secretary, there are almost a million Latinos in Pennsylvania, approximately 540,000, are eligible to vote.
“This is why it is imperative that the community understands the importance of elections and the power of civic participation," Cortés said. "We are the youngest community in the country, the average age of Latinos is 27. All this represents many opportunities but we must enroll more people."
The secretary added that without the Latino vote, "no one would be able to be elected because candidates get to the office through the electoral college and votes that reflect the population.”
Among the states needed to win a general election are California, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Florida, where the majority of people of color are Latino.
“Whoever wants to be president in this country better give us a place and pay attention to us," he said.
But in Pennsylvania, the number of eligible Latino voters is far from equal to the percentage of active ones, something that Cortés recognizes as both a challenge and an opportunity.
More tools for residents to enroll easily, more information about the candidates and community education are among the strategies he intends to focus on.
"In a rather positive way I would love to double the number of Latinos who cast their vote. Let’s say at the moment we have 15 or 20 percent, take that number to 30 or 40 percent," he said. "It would be ideal. However, the bottomline is that this is a never-ending job. When you get to a point where there has been progress, you take a break and the work continues."
Cortés’ advice to first-time voters? Be informed, be sure of the location for their voting site and to be aware of all the candidates’ platforms.
For now, the office is preparing another voter education campaign that will start in early 2016 — a civic engagement tour throughout the state that aims to raise awareness and educate the community about the importance of civic participation.