BY NHIEN NGUYEN
On a cool Saturday morning last month, Kwong Fan took a bus from his home in south Rainier Beach to Little Saigon. His main objective was not to get a bowl of steaming hot noodles, but it was to learn how to fill out his voting ballot properly and to educate himself about the candidates and ballot measures before Election Day on Nov. 7.
Since becoming a citizen in 1994, Fan, 60, has made it a priority to exercise his right and responsibility to vote. An immigrant from Hong Kong, Fan is concerned about issues that impact low-income populations. He believes voting is one way to positively affect these issues.
Fan joined a handful of other immigrants with voting power for a Hate Free Zone ballot party hosted by Helping Link, a nonprofit agency in Little Saigon serving recent Vietnamese immigrants. The gathering was a workshop that helped these limited-English speakers understand the voter pamphlets and receive one-on-one attention on specific voting questions. The workshop also taught participants how to make sure their vote counts, such as by choosing only one response per category, completely filling in circles, and signing mail-in ballots.
With this workshop, Fan said he had “no excuse to make an error.”
This type of ballot party is just one among many get-out-the-vote initiatives by organizations such as Hate Free Zone — an immigrant, civil and human rights group — that have revved up efforts to increase voter registration and voter turnout among immigrant communities.
With an eye towards the 2008 elections, advocacy groups are working on building a strong political power base to ensure that immigrants and Asian Pacific Islanders make an impact on who gets elected to office and future national and local policies.
Hate Free Zone’s civic engagement program implemented a voter registration strategy that included contacting immigrants during citizenship ceremonies. With over 160 immigrants a week becoming citizens at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) office in Tukwila, Hate Free Zone volunteers and staff handed out flyers and made announcements emphasizing the importance of registering to vote, while also offering assistance on filling out registration forms.
Hate Free Zone’s Kelli Larsen, whose family experienced the World War II Japanese American internment, says she tries to instill in the new citizens the notion that voting is not only a right but a responsibility.
If they don’t have a voice in the system that shapes their lives, nothing will ever change, Larsen says.
The strategy has worked. Since August 2005, the project has resulted in 11,050 new voters. Up until Election Day, Hate Free Zone will conduct multilingual phone banking and door-to-door canvassing, including “trick or vote” on Halloween. If they are going to vote, they get a treat, says Larsen.
As Hate Free Zone focuses their efforts on new citizens, APIAVote has organized with API Coalition (APIC) of King County, Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, AFL-CIO (APALA) and ROAR (Raising Our Asian Pacific American Representation) to devise ways to reach infrequent API voters, meaning those that voted in the 2004 presidential elections but skipped the mid-term elections in 2002. A robo call with eastside activist Nadine Shiroma’s voice encouraged 10,000 API households to vote this election. They also sent a mailer written in Korean, Chinese and Vietnamese reminding people to vote.
George Cheung, Seattle coordinator for APIAVote, says they want to expand the infrastructure for non-presidential elections by informing voters about every single race and important ballot measures. In this election, APIAVote is collaborating with other groups to advocate on three measures that directly impact immigrants, APIs and low-income populations: no on I-920 (repealing the estate tax), no on I-933 (a radical property rights initiative) and yes on King County Proposition #2 (increasing bus services in King County).
With resources to pay phone bankers with bilingual and bicultural backgrounds, the APIAVote project is building a database of language preference so that in future elections, they will know how best to communicate with API voters.
Hun C. Quach, APIA outreach director of Washington Coordinated Campaign, says getting immigrants and APIs to vote will depend on voter contact. To reach APIs looking for a new direction through the Democratic Party, Quach is coordinating palm cards translated in major Asian ethnic languages with her party’s platform.
Quach, who returned to her home state of Washington from a congressional position in the nation’s capital, believes that organizing in this area has been easy because she is simply building upon the coordinated campaigns of organizations like Hate Free Zone and APIAVote.
The final get-out-the-vote efforts take place on Election Day, where APIAVote along with other API organizations will be monitoring polls and making people aware that Chinese language ballots are available. Hate Free Zone will reach 200 voters and provide at least 50 rides to the polls.
As for what Fan will be doing on Election Day, he will continue his civic duty by volunteering as a poll worker for the third year. Asked why he does this, he says, “I can devote my time and have a chance to learn about voting procedures.