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 citys Hispanic community,
illustrating the critical role that immigrant voters have come to
play in this years elections.
The New York Immigration Coalition estimates that today immigrants
and their children comprise over 60 percent of the New York Citys
population. According to the New York Times, one in ten New Yorkers
are of Asian origin, and Hispanics account for 18 percent of the
citys 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 falls 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
But Professor John Hull Mollenkopf, director of CUNYs Center
for Urban Research, suggested that the number of Chinese New Yorkers
using Chinese-language ballots may be fairly small. "I would
suspect that youre 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 theyll be able to get access to that assistance,"
Unfamiliarity with voting procedure and voters rights has
been another handicap for immigrant voters. "There is a clear lack
of explanation of why its 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 groups civic
involvement depends heavily on the degree of engagement by local
community organizations. Lidia Shpilsky at Bensonhursts 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 theyre
so happy they run over straight to me to get registered," Shpilsky
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