By Emily Hsiang, Student at Haverford College
The 1964 Civil Rights Act granted voting rights to all men and women, regardless of race, religion, or education, yet the existence of such a law is still not enough to ensure all Americans have a voice. Unfortunately, American voter turnout is on a dismal decline with only about half of the voting-eligible population participating in the 2016 election. This is the result of several institutional barriers, such as restrictive state voting laws and gerrymandering.
Immigrants are especially excluded by these institutional barriers despite comprising so much of the population. Thus, the invaluable contributions to our communities by immigrants are not accurately represented in election results, as only one in every ten registered voters is foreign-born.
In Philadelphia alone, 232,000 residents were born abroad, with even more residents representing first or second generation immigrant families. Foreigners represent fifteen percent of Philadelphia’s population and nineteen percent of Philadelphia’s workforce, numbers that have only been increasing since 2000. The rising number of immigrants in Philadelphia is largely the result of efforts by local government leaders and nonprofit organizations, who make the city more accessible to foreigners with new job and social service programs.
One of the primary reasons so few immigrants turn out to vote is because of how difficult it is to become a citizen. To get a visa and achieve citizenship, immigrants must prevail through an extremely lengthy and complicated process involving sponsors, eligibility requirements, and paperwork. The application fee alone is about seven hundred dollars, acting as the ultimate roadblock for disadvantaged immigrants. If an immigrant is also uneducated, a low-skill worker, or does not have a family member or friend in the U.S., this process is even more difficult.
After becoming a citizen, registering to vote may be another challenge. Voter registration is likely a low priority for hardworking immigrants as they get on their feet, especially if the necessary information and support is inaccessible. Whether or not immigrants have received an American education may affect their knowledge of the voting process, as well as, their interest and understanding of U.S. politics in general. While statistics vary between immigrant groups, 27% of foreign-born Americans are reported to have less than a high school education, with 23% having completed high school as of 2017. Similarly, language barriers obscure voting information for half of the immigrant population that does not speak English proficiently.
Once registered, problems with voter turnout are limited, as evidenced by the 87% of registered Asian immigrants who participated in the 2016 election. This statistic shows that immigrants want to vote, they simply struggle to access this important opportunity. Therefore, if obtaining citizenship and registering to vote were made easier, the issue of low voter turnout would significantly improve. It is crucial that this enthusiasm among fresh-faced hardworking immigrants is rewarded and maintained. Beyond immigrants, the perpetuation of such enthusiasm could only boost political efficacy and voter turnout for the rest of the voting-eligible U.S. population.
These main obstacles to immigrant voter turnout are primarily bureaucratic, as evidenced by the increase in citizenship application fees under the Trump administration. The fact that these problems are rooted in the government, circles back to why voter turnout is important in the first place. By electing the officials that represent your ideals, you help create positive social change in your community. It is important to research the candidates on your ballot before each election to understand what causes they support and whether their campaign appeals to you. To make it even easier, BallotReady.Org provides information on every candidate, referendum, and upcoming election relevant to your area by simply entering your zip code.
Even within your community, voter registration is made more accessible to others by spreading awareness. Some ways you can spread awareness include posting on social media to remind followers of Election Day, the location of a nearby voting booth, or the deadline for voter registration.
Sporting merchandise such as “I Voted” stickers, t-shirts, tote bags, pins, signs, etc. may seem insignificant, but these accessories are reported to facilitate an important feeling of community and pride for all voting Americans. Voting merchandise is available on most online shops, such as Redbubble and Amazon. You can even get promotional stickers or postcards sent to you for free on some activism websites, such as when you fill out a form on MoveOn or pledge to vote on NextGenAmerica. Why not even make your own voting swag by writing on a plain t-shirt or embroidering an old canvas bag?
If you are multilingual, you can make this information accessible to foreign-born or non-native English speakers by publicizing it in a language other than English whenever possible. Even if you don’t know another language, you can advertise voting information using universally-understood images or symbols as well as just words.
If you are friends with someone who is foreign-born, you can help them register to vote very easily via Vote.Org, or simply make yourself available to answer any of their questions. There are also political organizations that you can get involved with like Voto Latino that strive to educate and empower immigrant voters.
With regard for how to encourage voting among immigrants specifically, socialization is crucial to an immigrant’s understanding of U.S. politics. Depending on what age someone came to the U.S., or how many family members they have in the U.S., an immigrant’s involvement in American culture may majorly affect their comfort level when participating in elections. The more welcomed immigrants feel, the more they will feel they belong in the U.S., and the more they will want to participate. At the end of the day, immigrant voter turnout may be helped by your inviting and friendly disposition.