Symposium | Winning the Voting Wars

Expanding Citizenship: Immigrants and the Vote

By Tova Andrea Wang

Tagged voting rights

As was vividly demonstrated in the 2012 election, immigrant communities are increasingly a major political and civic force. A record 10 percent of the electorate in 2012 was Latino, up a percentage point from 2008, and the Asian-American share of the electorate rose to 3 percent, still small but historic. Both groups overwhelmingly voted for President Obama, in even larger proportions than they did in 2008, proving themselves to be potent voting blocs.

They are poised to become even more influential in the near future. The Pew Hispanic Center reports that Hispanics will account for 40 percent of the growth in the electorate over the next two decades. By 2030, 40 million Hispanics will be eligible voters, up from 23.7 million today. If Hispanics’ voter participation and naturalization rates increase to the levels of other groups, the number of Hispanic votes cast could double within two decades. Similarly, the Asian share of the electorate is estimated to more than double by 2040.

Nonetheless, even as the trends show growth, voting by naturalized citizens overall (as opposed to voters from immigrant backgrounds generally) still lags. While we do not have exact numbers for the 2012 election, the data from recent years are telling. In 2008, turnout among the native-born voting-age population was 64.4 percent and only 54 percent among naturalized voting-age Americans. The disparity in turnout between native and naturalized Americans has been persistent; in 2006, naturalized citizens voted at a rate 12 percentage points lower than their native counterparts—49 percent versus 37 percent—and in 2004, there was an 11 point gap.

Further, although voting is extremely important, it is not the only measure of political and civic participation. Studies indicate a gap in other forms of civic engagement as well, including volunteering for an organization, contacting a government official, signing a petition, and working for or donating to a political campaign.

So what can be done?

Voter Registration and Voting

Historically the parties have not seen it in their interest to invest in the naturalized-citizen population because it does not fit within their “win now” mentality. Parties and candidates have focused their energies on people who are already registered and likely to vote, a smaller and easier-to-target slice of the population—and one that has usually not included immigrants. Party and candidate outreach to Latinos has been growing as their population has grown, but it remains limited for the most part, oftentimes amounting to generic Spanish- language ads. Outreach to other communities, including the Asian population, has been even more wanting.

However, the Obama campaign broke from that history, beginning in 2008 and in a more significant way in 2012. Given demographers’ prediction of the exponential growth in the Latino and Asian populations, it’s easy to see how the Democrats’ efforts in 2012 are only the beginning of a shift toward mobilizing these groups, especially given their growing propensity to vote Democratic. Both ethnic groups are now realizing how critically important they can be in shifting election outcomes when operating more or less as a bloc.

Just after his inauguration in 2009, the Obama Administration reached out to Latinos directly through Spanish-language media, including media that had never before had access to the White House. Then, in 2011, the Obama campaign launched a ground game—door-to-door efforts, information sessions, tables at community events—to register Latinos, especially youth. This was exciting to see: a political campaign seeking to register new voters, adding more people to the electorate, rather than just relying on turning out return customers.

In heavily Asian areas, there was greater party turnout than ever before. According to a report from a coalition of Asian-American organizations, “Unlike previous election cycles, where the Asian American vote was viewed as marginal to presidential campaigns, 2012 saw attention and some strategic efforts by the parties to focus on Asian American voters in Nevada, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.”

But it was still not nearly sufficient. Even though there were improvements in 2012, the report notes:

One of the key stories about Asian American voters for 2012 was the lack of investment in outreach to this ever-growing electorate. Pre-election surveys found that Asian Americans had minimal contact by candidates, parties, or other groups and that about 2 in 3 Asian American likely voters were not contacted about the upcoming election. Considering that almost a third of the community was still undecided a month prior to Election Day, parties and other organizations missed an important opportunity to educate Asian American voters and potentially build future bases of support.

Candidates also have a role to play. When it comes to the naturalized-citizen vote, candidates—and what they believe, do, and say—matter. If the community doesn’t like the candidates or their positions, or feel alienated by the candidate’s lack of attention to the community and its interests, even strong mobilization efforts will make only a marginal difference. Like any other constituency, immigrant voters need a reason to turn out to vote beyond just a sense of civic duty. A few ads in Spanish won’t suffice. As much as with other groups, candidates must speak to issues in ways that attract immigrant citizens. And as with other groups, candidates must want the votes of these Americans and make that clear.

Government officials also must do their part. In some areas of the country, election officials take a proactive approach to registering new Americans. In most parts of the country, they do not. This needs to change, including in places where minority-language assistance is not required under the law. At a minimum, it is neither expensive nor labor intensive to make voter-registration forms in alternative languages widely available, and to provide voter assistance in those languages as well through a hotline. The Election Assistance Commission, the federal agency that provides guidance on election practices in the United States, has commendably provided voting materials and registration forms in several languages and posted them on its website. Some jurisdictions—Minnesota and Cook County, Illinois come to mind—do an excellent job of providing such materials now, but other state and local government officials can easily make better use of this service.

Moreover, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, which is responsible for naturalization ceremonies, has recently issued formal guidance requiring voter registration at all naturalization ceremonies throughout the country by either election officials, nonprofit organizations, or, if necessary, agency officials themselves. This guidance must be fully implemented and monitored for compliance. By simply registering new citizens, we could see hundreds of thousands of new voters every year.

Recent research tells us that another way to increase immigrant turnout is to have more immigrant candidates. Matt Barreto, a political scientist at the University of Washington, has written extensively about the mobilizing impact a “co-ethnic” candidate can have on immigrant communities. In a study of five mayoral races across the country, Barreto found that having a Latino candidate led to significantly higher turnout for that candidate regardless of party or country of origin. And there are strong indications this is not just a phenomenon limited to Latino candidates, as demonstrated by former Minnesota state senator Mee Moua’s experience turning out the Hmong-American community in St. Paul and U.S. Representative Judy Chu’s ability to turn out Asian-American voters in California. These are encouraging trends. According to a report by the New American Leaders Project (NALP), there were 80 congressional candidates from immigrant communities in 2012: 55 Latinos, 17 Asian Americans, six Arab Americans, and two Caribbean Americans. Forty-seven won. Tulsi Gabbard is the first American Samoan in Congress, Mazie Hirono is the first Asian-American woman in the U.S. Senate, and now there are a dozen Asian Americans in Congress.

If candidates with immigrant backgrounds have the ability to inspire their communities to get more involved, we need to cultivate and support more immigrants to run for office. As I discuss below, community organizations and labor unions can serve as “incubators” for immigrant activists, teaching them leadership and organizing skills. One of the most encouraging projects in this regard is NALP. Among other activities, the project recruits promising leaders from immigrant communities and invites them to participate in a two-day training program called “Ready to Lead,” which emphasizes the immigrant experience as a campaign asset. After the session, participants are coached by webinar to prepare for advanced campaign skills training. These types of innovations need to be supported to grow and reach all corners of the country.

Bolstering Civic Engagement

Engaging immigrants in civic activity beyond voting is also critical to the health of our democracy. There are many ways to make one’s voice heard.

Community organizations, including social-service and advocacy groups, are the primary mobilizers of immigrant communities toward all forms of political engagement. As scholar Janelle Wong has written, community-based mobilization creates the foundation for mass mobilization by teaching immigrants communication and organizing skills, and giving them the confidence to participate. Such organizations are particularly effective at reaching people who are seen as the most difficult to engage: people with few resources, those who may not speak English as a first language, and even noncitizens. As another scholar, Els de Graauw, has written, immigrant organizations serve as “civic incubators” and provide participants with opportunities to develop leadership potential and skills such as budgeting, personnel practices, and bargaining.

Many organizations didn’t claim victory on Election Day and leave it at that, but pivoted toward issue-based advocacy. In December, a coalition of Latino advocacy groups announced a civic engagement campaign to pass comprehensive immigration reform. This is a hopeful sign that the normal pattern can be reversed: Immigrants can be mobilized first to vote, and then encouraged to engage in other forms of political and civic activity.

Scholars of civic participation have increasingly recognized the critical role unions play in mobilizing immigrant engagement. As immigrants have become vital to union membership, it’s been found that union participation contributes to the political incorporation of Latino immigrants. One recent study discovered that parents who were in unions used the civic engagement and advocacy skills learned through union activity to organize for improvements at their children’s schools. Examining immigrants in one particular union, the researchers found that it served as a “‘school for democracy’ by granting parent members with the confidence, skills, and experience useful for political engagement in their children’s schools.” De Graauw has called unions essential to immigrant civic engagement, and has explored numerous examples of unions taking immigrant members from workplace mobilization to other forms of civic participation across the country.

Finally, civic and language education is essential to engaging immigrants. Many studies show that length of time in the country is key to whether a naturalized citizen will participate politically. These studies suggest that as an immigrant becomes more familiar with American politics and culture and feels a greater sense of belonging to this country, she becomes more inclined to participate. But this shouldn’t take the 20 years academics find it currently takes to accomplish. Increased resources and interest in providing civic education, civic skill-building, and systems through which immigrants learn about and participate in our democracy even prior to attaining citizenship would go a long way in reducing the time it takes a naturalized citizen to become inclined to register to vote.

Providing resources for immigrants to learn English is a major part of this. We know that language has a direct impact on voter participation, and on civic, economic, and social integration in general. Recent legislative efforts at immigration reform will demand even greater levels of proficiency in English than ever before. Yet the government provides only a small fraction of the resources necessary to allow new Americans and other immigrants to learn English. This includes the public schools. If we want to close the participation gap between native-born and naturalized citizens in our system of governance, this must change. As the Migration Policy Institute has documented at length, the gap between those who need English-language instruction and the number of classes available is enormous. The institute has proposed concrete ways to pay for such instruction and has demonstrated what a solid return on investment such spending would provide.

Unquestionably, immigrants will compose a greater share of the population in the years to come. If the United States is to be a truly inclusive democracy we must ensure they have every opportunity to participate in the policy-making process by voting and engaging in the entirety of civic and communal activities. Immigrants themselves are clearly taking the lead, and with improvements to our political structure and civic infrastructure they will flourish and contribute to the well-being of all Americans.

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Tova Andrea Wang is a senior democracy fellow at Demos and a consultant to democracy organizations working on election reform around the world.

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