Voter Registration 101: How Do New Citizens Become Voters?

In the midst of the swirling allegations of fraudulent voter registrations, I thought it would be useful to explain how most of the nation’s immigrant citizens become legally registered voters. Federal authorities are investigating alleged voter registration fraud by the community group ACORN, and a controversial recent report warned of up to 2 million non-citizen immigrants voting nationwide.(Click here for more of Feet in 2 Worlds’ coverage of the report on non-citizen voters, released by a publishing house the Southern Poverty Law Center designated a hate group.)

Most immigrant rights groups focus their large-scale — and, by law, nonpartisan — voter registration efforts on ceremonies where immigrants officially become U.S. citizens. Concentrating on citizenship ceremonies ensures that the people who register to vote are citizens. The lion’s share of newly- naturalized U.S. citizens register to vote this way.

Registering to vote if you are not a U.S. citizen is a felony. This means that if you are an immigrant who isn’t a citizen and you register to vote, you are breaking federal law, and are subject to deportation.For this reason alone, immigrant rights groups are very careful to make sure they do not register non-U.S. citizens to vote.

The ceremonies themselves are huge and moving affairs where hundreds or occasionally thousands of immigrants become citizens after years of waiting to make their way through the quicksand of the legal immigration system.(Check out GOOD and Reason magazines’ recent charts, which outline just how many years this process takes – six to ten years in a best case scenario, twelve to twenty at its worst).Voter registration rates at citizenship ceremonies are typically very high: usually about 75-90% of new citizens choose to register, a rate higher than the 2006 national average of 68% of all citizens eligible to vote .

To avoid accusations of partisan voter registration, as well as to discourage fake registrations (the alleged problem with ACORN’s program, where employees were paid based on the number of registrations they completed), immigrant rights organizations generally use volunteers to register voters.

New York City is home to the nation’s largest and most extensive effort of this kind, an all-volunteer project run by the New York Immigration Coalition that has registered over 275,000 new citizens to vote over the last 13 years.

Here’s what usually happens: hundreds (nearly 200 a day, four days a week at the federal courthouse in Brooklyn, New York) or even thousands of immigrants file into a federal building (usually a courthouse, sometimes an auditorium) to submit paperwork and fill out even more paperwork.As people wait to be sworn in as new citizens, volunteers explain how to fill out the voter registration form (many immigrants have never voted before in their home countries, or faced persecution if they voted against the government), and provide multilingual assistance, often in at least two or three languages other than English.

Perhaps most importantly, most immigrant groups make presentations to new citizens on why their vote is important and how they can make government and elected officials more responsive to their needs by registering and voting.

Once immigrants take the oath of citizenship and are officially U.S. citizens, volunteers collect the completed voter registration forms and deliver them to the local elections office for processing.

Of course, sometimes things do not move as smoothly.

CASA of Maryland, a grassroots group that organizes immigrant residents in addition to providing them with social and legal services, was one of the latest organizations to join the voter registration fold earlier this year.According to Kimberly Propeack, the group’s Director of Organizing and Political Action, CASA volunteers registered nearly a thousand new citizens to vote at daily citizenship ceremonies in Baltimore earlier this summer.

After federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents conducted a local raid in search of undocumented immigrants, CASA organized a protest to denounce the action.In what Propeack believes was retaliation for the protest, the next time CASA volunteers arrived at the courthouse to register new citizens to vote they were surrounded by armed guards, ejected from the premises, and subsequently barred from registering new citizens.Immigration officials alleged that the nonpartisan voter registration was ‘unlawful solicitation.’Propeack notes that immigration officials later allowed law students to register new citizens to vote, raising further questions about officials’ motives.

Nationwide, immigrant rights and Latino organizations are also partnering with labor groups such as SEIU to do broad voter registration and get-out-the-vote work at the grassroots community level in states including Nevada and Florida.For example, the We Are America Alliance, a coalition of immigrant rights and community organizing groups, including the Center for Community Change, has already registered 500,000 immigrants to vote this year alone, and hopes to reach one million voters with its get-out-the-vote efforts.

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