‘If we weren’t there, nobody would be registering them to vote’

Inside a campaign to turn recently naturalized citizens into voters

Phone bankers reach out to recently naturalized U.S. citizens, many of whom will be voting in their first American election on Tuesday. CREDIT: Alan Pyke/ThinkProgress
Phone bankers reach out to recently naturalized U.S. citizens, many of whom will be voting in their first American election on Tuesday. CREDIT: Alan Pyke/ThinkProgress

PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA — Newly naturalized American citizens fill out a lot of paperwork. But when government officials hand them a packet of information and forms on the day they swear allegiance to the United States, there’s nothing in it about how to vote. It’s a glaring omission of a key element of civic engagement.

For the past 10 years, the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition (PICC) has been filling in the gaps. PICC staffers set up shop inside the room where naturalization ceremonies happen, registering anyone who wants to sign up.

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But even after that, these new voters are easily overlooked by traditional political campaigns, which use voter histories to guide their work, PICC executive director Sundrop Carter told ThinkProgress.

“Our voters don’t have a voter history, because this is maybe the first or second election they’ve been able to vote, so they’re often not targeted by the campaigns,” Carter said as volunteers gathered for the group’s final voter mobilization phonebank of this election on Monday night.

“Often the only thing holding them back is no one has told them where their polling place is.”

“But they’re also very highly motivated, and often the only thing holding them back is no one has told them where their polling place is.”

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The nonprofit group’s work is emphatically nonpartisan. Callers do not ask voters who they support, and will not answer any questions about candidates or ballot measures. They’re only there to encourage people to turn out and equip them with the tools they need to exercise their right.

It’s a modest aim compared to the elaborate get-out-the-vote operations that political campaigns run. But for the Americans PICC works with, just a little information can make a huge difference.

“We often take for granted that you have to go to a certain polling location, but in many countries, you can vote at any polling location you see,” Carter said. “And so if people think that that’s true, they’re not going to be able to vote because they’re going to walk into a polling location and be told no, and they’re not going to go to a second location.”

In the final three weeks of the election, PICC volunteers made over 10,000 calls and reached over 2,000 voters, many of whom will be casting ballots for the first time on Tuesday, said civic engagement director Paula Meninato.

CREDIT: Paula Meninato
CREDIT: Paula Meninato

Now 23, Meninato was still in grade school when her parents moved from Argentina to the U.S. to flee economic catastrophe. “One day I went into school and a piece of candy was worth 30 cents, and when I came out of school in the afternoon it was worth a dollar, because of inflation,” she said, explaining her parents decision to leave.

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The Meninatos have been in the U.S. since 2002. They watched their adopted country elect leaders a dozen times from the sidelines before completing the lengthy, expensive citizenship process.

“My whole family, this past primary was our first opportunity to vote. This election will be my first general election I’m able to vote in,” Meninato said.

Spending more than a decade with no voting rights is a familiar experience for immigrants seeking to become citizens, said Carter. The quickest the process ever moves is about 7 years, but “for most people it can easily be a 10- to 20-year process to become a U.S. citizen. People live through several elections without having any say,” all while paying taxes and sending their kids to U.S. schools.

“To me that is a form of voter suppression.”

And even after jumping through each and every hoop, raising their right hand, and swearing an oath to the United States, the democratic process isn’t exactly reaching out to grab these new citizens.

“They’re literally given a packet of paperwork that has how to get your passport and all that stuff. And a voter registration form is not included in that packet,” Carter said. “If we weren’t there, nobody would be registering them to vote.”

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“To me that is a form of voter suppression. You’ve got all these people becoming citizens and you’re not giving them the easiest, fastest access to the democratic process.”