From One-Party Rule to the Two-Party System: Polish, Russian Immigrants Cautious as they Register to Vote

Chris Rybkiewicz (left) of the Polish American Congress signs up new voters from St. Stanislaus Kostka Church in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

Chris Rybkiewicz (left) of the Polish American Congress signs up new voters from St. Stanislaus Kostka Church in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

It took Ryszard Klimek seven years to register to vote.

Since he became a citizen in 2001, American politics was not a subject of his interest. “Politics in my country is a parody. So I lost interest in it and I didn’t feel like getting involved here either,” says Ryszard, 35, who came to America in 1995 and works as an electrician. When he was 16, the Communist regime that ruled Poland for decades tumbled. Since then the newly-created Polish democracy has turned into a rampant form of pluralism where parties easily come into being, merge or cease to exist, amidst divisions and disagreements.

To Ryszard, American politics seemed very different than what he knew from his home country, and not being proficient in English, it was very difficult for him to understand it. But this year he decided to finally register and vote.

“The candidates are more interesting and the issues are important,” said Ryszard, pointing out the war in Iraq, immigration reform, and the declining economy.

This year’s election ignites excitement across American society, including immigrant voters who hope to see the issues they care about addressed by the candidates.

“Only this year we have registered over 17,000 immigrant voters,” said Alan Kaplan of the New York Immigration Coalition (NYIC). “It’s about double what we were projecting. People are really interested in this election.”

Between 1998 and 2007, NYIC registered over 250,000 immigrants in the New York metropolitan area, usually approaching them right after citizenship swearing-in ceremonies. Registration drives are also held by numerous community organizations in many immigrant communities across New York.

One of them is the Polish American Congress Downstate New York Division, which for the first time is conducting its own registration drive, attempting to register immigrants on Sundays in front of Polish churches in New York City and Long Island.

Rev. Wladyslaw (Vlad) Kubrak was the first to register at St. Mathias Church in Ridgewood, New York.

Rev. Wladyslaw (Vlad) Kubrak was the first to register at St. Mathias Church in Ridgewood, New York.

“Our objective is to raise consciousness in the Polish American community about the importance of voting,” said Frank Milewski, president of the New York PAC. “We would explain to people that taking advantage of the voting privilege would give the Polish community higher visibility and recognition among politicians and office seekers who would realize that Poles should not be overlooked by their campaigns.”

The PAC managed to enroll around 500 Polish immigrants since April. It was not an easy task, according to Milewski, because immigrants are skeptical and distrustful of politics. Interestingly, many do not want to register with any party.

“It’s a case of about forty percent of immigrants,” said Kaplan, who thinks this is typical among people coming from countries which experienced one-party rule, such as Poland, Russia, other former Soviet states, China and some Latin American countries.

“People come in with a preconceived notion about what it means to be in a party,” Kaplan said. “And if you lived in a country with a Communist regime, that definitely plays a huge part in your choice not to register as a party member.” Out of over 3.9 million registered New York City voters, 17% did not register with any party, according to the state Board of Elections. [More figures are here in pdf.]

In order to win over immigrants’ trust, the New York PAC decided that voter registration drives have to be conducted in person. The organization also won the support of local clergy, who are highly regarded in the Polish community. “Priests would make an appeal at the end of masses for the people to recognize their duty to vote, and in some cases they would even help us with the registration process,” Milewski said.

Russian community organizations also face the challenge of overcoming people’s mistrust towards politics and politicians. For Gene Borsh, National Director of the Civic and Voter Education Initiative for the Russian-American (CVEI), one of the most difficult tasks is to convince people who under Communism had no influence over politics that “in America they can take advantage of their rights and become an active part of the civic and political mainstream of the country and that one person can make a difference.”

That’s why CVEI was started in 2002 by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), the Local Russian Émigré Organizations (LOREO) and the World Congress of Russian Jewry. Since then, the project has registered at least 40,000 Russian Americans. It also distributes a guide to the voting process in the United States and organizes education forums as well as meetings with elected officials. “When people raise an issue, and later apply pressure on an elected official and in consequence the problem is resolved, they start to believe,” Borsh said.

But for some immigrants it’s not the concept of the party or the complexity of the political process that is problematic: it’s the limited number of options in the American system. Carpenter Jacek Maliga, 49, who became a citizen on June 16th of this year and registered right after the swearing-in ceremony, decided not to enroll in any party because none of those listed on the form –Republican, Democratic, Independence, Conservative and Working Families- reflects his libertarian views.

His wife, Ewa, 43, a proofreader, who registered on the same day, registered as a Democrat.

But like her husband, Ewa also finds the American system favoring two major parties questionable. Since arriving in the U.S., she has voted in Poland’s elections at the Polish consulate in New York. “I always vote for centrist parties,” she said. “Had the U.S. acquired a similar system with a bigger number of options, I would have a chance to choose a party better reflecting my views.”

During the primaries, she was eager to obtain her citizenship hoping she would be able to cast her vote for Hillary Clinton. Since Clinton is not an option anymore, she plans to watch the upcoming debates and educate herself on issues in order to decide whether she will participate in the November election, and if so, who she will vote for.

Whether higher numbers of immigrants registering to vote will translate into more immigrants actually voting in November remains to be seen.

“We can’t predict it. Our only task is now to send people’s registration forms to the Board of Elections before the deadline on October 10th,” said Milewski, of the Polish American Congress. “Let’s hope we made a difference and people understood that voting is not only a privilege, but also a duty.”

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