NOVEMBER 2002

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New Citizens Vote

By Katya Kumkova-Wolpert

"Our neighborhoods are stronger, our state is stronger because we have a very strong Latino community," Governor George Pataki declared in Spanish, as he greeted Bronx constituents at a dinner in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month.

Both Pataki and his Democratic rival in the gubernatorial race, H. Carl McCall, have been courting the city’s Hispanic community, illustrating the critical role that immigrant voters have come to play in this year’s elections.

The New York Immigration Coalition estimates that today immigrants and their children comprise over 60 percent of the New York City’s population. According to the New York Times, one in ten New Yorkers are of Asian origin, and Hispanics account for 18 percent of the city’s electorate. The question on the minds of government agencies and immigrant advocates is how best to engage immigrant voters in the electoral process.

The Board of Elections has taken a multilingual approach. During this fall’s primary Korean New Yorkers headed to the polls for the first time to vote in their native language.

The Board of Elections’ Voting Rights Act provides for bilingual ballots in any district where a language minority with a low level of English proficiency makes up either five percent of the total electorate or 10,000 voters. In addition to Korean, Chinese-language assistance has been available in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens in previous elections, and Spanish assistance is offered throughout the city.

The Board of Elections does not provide figures for the number of voters who use non-English ballots, and estimates vary.

According to Milagros Vicente of the Northern Manhattan Coalition for Economic Empowerment, "everyone" in the Dominican neighborhood of Washington Heights takes advantage of the Spanish language ballots.

But Professor John Hull Mollenkopf, director of CUNY’s Center for Urban Research, suggested that the number of Chinese New Yorkers using Chinese-language ballots may be fairly small. "I would suspect that you’re talking about…five or ten percent of the [Chinese] voters," he said.

Most voters who use language assistance at the polls are elderly. Younger new citizens usually attended school in the United States and have a greater English proficiency. But even younger voters may appreciate voting services in their own languages.

"When it comes to crucial information people prefer to have it in their native language -- just like if you or I were in a different country we would want to have crucial voting information in English," said Suman Raghunathan, coordinator of voter outreach programs at the New York Immigration Coalition.

The programs have not been without problems. According to Margaret Fung of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, which monitors elections throughout the city, the group has received complaints that poll workers turned away voters whose first and last names had been reversed or did not appear in the roster at all.

Some voters were asked to fill out information in both Korean or Chinese and English, defeating the purpose of bilingual voting, and to provide identification when none was necessary. In some cases poll workers put up signs in only one language — Chinese or Korean — not realizing the difference.

"I think foremost (the Board of Elections needs to provide) better training for poll workers, so that when Korean- or Chinese-language voters need assistance from interpreters or need to refer to materials, that they’ll be able to get access to that assistance," said Fung.

Unfamiliarity with voting procedure and voters’ rights has been another handicap for immigrant voters. "There is a clear lack of explanation of why it’s important to vote, of information on voter issues and rights at the polls," Ragunatthan said. Most immigrants want to participate in the democratic process, she said, and to teach them to do so should be a priority.

Raghunathan believes the government should provide this assistance. For now, however, the New York Immigration Coalition has been working in conjunction with over 20 community-based organizations. Four days a week volunteers from the Coalition attend naturalization ceremonies, where they register new citizens to vote and conduct a presentation on voter participation in the American democracy. The Coalition also provides voter education videos in English, Spanish, Chinese and Korean, with Haitian Creole in the works.

Raghunathan said that the extent of an immigrant group’s civic involvement depends heavily on the degree of engagement by local community organizations. Lidia Shpilsky at Bensonhurst’s Jewish Community House, usually conducts hers about a month before the election. At the presentation she brings in a mock voting machine to show Russian speakers from the former Soviet Union how to use it and explains their rights as voters.

All obstacles aside, new citizens seem to be interested in civic participation. "As soon as they get their citizenship they’re so happy they run over straight to me to get registered," Shpilsky said.


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