Friday, October 1, 2010

The New American Vote

The Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA) hosted the 2010 National Immigration Integration Conference in Boston on September 29 - October 1.

During one of the breakout sessions, four panelists addressed “The New American Vote,” its importance, and how to help it grow. The panel featured:
Tova Wang focused on the “significant and persistent” participation gap between naturalized and native-born citizens: in 2008, the turnout gap between these two groups was a hefty 10 points (64.4% of native-born citizens voted while 54% of naturalized citizens voted). Native-born citizens are also more likely to be registered to vote. Wang traced the disparity to a number of factors, including socio-economic factors, length of time in the U.S., language barriers, location, and discriminatory practices. To reduce the gap, Wang suggested that voter registration be offered as part of all naturalization ceremonies.

George Pillsbury focused on the work that nonprofit organizations can do to help reach underrepresented and new American communities. Nonprofits are in the unique position where clients come to them, and they can easily (and legally) incorporate voter education, registration, and get-out-the-vote activities into their ongoing services. Pillsbury encouraged organizations to “turn up the volume” and talk to people about voting.

Miriam Stein impressed the importance of knowing your legislators and making an impression. She brushed aside the average citizen's impressions of the legislative process, e.g. legislators only listen to folks with money. Instead, Stein said that the two most important influences are a legislator’s constituents (after all, they want to be reelected) and legislative leadership (because they decide what gets talked about). She noted that, “we are all constituents, and we all have influence.”

Anna Lucia Stifano discussed her experience with the Latino community and why Latinos frequently don’t vote. She pointed to linguistic and cultural barriers and that the how and why of voting are often foreign. Stifano encouraged more civic education trainings, and suggested that the key to increasing participation was to inspire communities--including those who are ineligible to vote, such as legal residents. Everyone in the community can do something, even if it isn't casting a ballot: they can help others vote, they can canvass, they can volunteer, and they can make their voices hear.

The U.S. is one of the few democracies that requires the citizen to undertake the voter registration process, instead of having the government automatically register voters. And often, the people who aren’t voting are those with the greatest stake.


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