SALT LAKE CITY — Some Utah voters are new citizens heading to the polls for the first time, and Latino community leaders have organized free taxi service to get them there.
"I'm not taking sides politically, just want to help the community," said Raul Ramirez of Las Aguilas-Utah Eagle Transport. Ramirez, who started his taxi company three years ago in Salt Lake City, said he plans to vote this year and wants to help others do the same.
"We've been receiving a lot from the community," Ramirez said. "There comes a time you have to give back a little bit."
Esteban Santos is proud to be part of the movement to help his fellow Latino neighbors. He said he's working on becoming a U.S. citizen, so he won't be able to vote this year.
"I'm excited because my wife, she can vote," said Santos of Grillos Transport. "I'm excited because I can help the community."
Utah Eagle Transport and Grillos Transport are taxi companies Latino leaders recruited specifically to help Latino voters within Salt Lake County. But the free-ride service will also be available to anyone in the county who doesn't have transportation to get to the polls, including the elderly.
The two companies will have 24 vehicles available to get voters throughout Salt Lake County to their precincts.
"We're not just focusing on one area, but they do have to specify that they're going to the polls," Ramirez said.
Latino leaders said they were successful in mobilizing Latino citizens to vote in the 2008 elections. This year there are more Latino candidates, and the get-out-the-vote effort has increased.
Salt Lake County has eight Latino Democratic candidates, six of whom are women, running for legislative seats in the November elections. The Republican Party has one Latino candidate, and other Latino candidates are seeking to represent other Utah counties, making this the largest number of Latino candidates in Utah running for a state legislative seat at the same time.
"For the first time we are beginning to see Latinos interested in politics, interested in making a difference," said Latino community activist Tony Yapias.
The Utah Latino population has increased by 156,781 people between the past two census counts — from 201,559 Latinos in 2000 to 358,340 Latinos in 2010.
"A majority of Utahns will be voting Republican. We know that they'll be voting for Mitt Romney," Yapias said. "But the majority of Latinos, about 80 percent or so, will be voting Democratic."
Yapias said the taxi program is not designed to benefit one party over the other. He said he is especially focused on new citizens to help them into the democratic process.
"As a first-time voter, they're going to be a little bit hesitant," he said, "but if we can provide a means for them, transport them, that will make life easier for them."
Latino community leaders expect to help more than 200 Hispanic voters get to their voting precincts today through Election Day.
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