First-Time Voters in a Battleground State: Immigrants Step Up to the Polls in South Florida

Election worker Pierre Audain (left) looks on as first-time voter Lucille Dorasme, 79, practices using a Florida voting machine.

Election worker Pierre Audain (left) looks on as first-time voter Lucille Dorasme, 79, practices using a Florida voting machine.

This post is by Macollvie Jean-François, a reporter at the Sun Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

A couple of weeks ago, while talking about the presidential election at a Fort Lauderdale strip mall, Gregory Fleurinor, 31, took his voter registration card out of his wallet. He wanted to prove that he is registered — and indeed he has been since January 2006.

Fleurinor, however, has never used the card. The clammy feel of the paper, a result of being pressed against other cards in his wallet, ignored, attests to that. Barely a month before the election, the Haitian-American delivery driver said he still hadn’t made up his mind about whether he would vote.

“I’m just not used to voting, I’ve never done it,” Fleurinor said, shrugging. “I haven’t decided if I will go [to the polls]. Everyone else is going, what difference will it make if I don’t go?”

Groups in immigrant communities have been working feverishly to ensure people like Fleurinor do vote. They are targeting both newly naturalized Americans and those who simply never bothered to go to the polls in the past.

Events like a free Jay-Z-Wyclef Jean concert in Miami on Oct. 5, which one immigrant empowerment advocate called “awareness builders,” receive great attention, but they do not necessarily get people out to vote. What does translate into ballots are other, less flashy, ongoing efforts by community and advocacy groups, like door-to-door canvassing, phone calls and simulated voting exercises.

The latter combat the fear many immigrants and first-time voters have about their debut in the polling booth. Some simply do not know enough about how to cast their vote; others still harbor fears that stem from chaotic, even dangerous, experiences in their birth countries.

Despite those roadblocks, many first-time immigrant voters want to step up to the polls. Between the economic crisis and anger over the failure of immigration reform in Congress, many of them are motivated to participate in the election. Voters and community organizers alike hope the process goes smoothly.

“I personally have never seen people as excited or as willing to react to a lot of the anti-immigrant vitriol that surfaced after the policy debate,” said Jorge Mursuli, president and CEO of Democracia U.S.A., a national non-partisan Hispanic voter registration and civic engagement organization. “Making sure when they get there there’s no glitch: that’s a great way to make sure people vote again.”

Some 270 staffers for Democracia and local groups are out in South Florida’s immigrant communities trying to achieve just that. They’ve been working consistently — knowing the immigrant vote could have an impact in policy decisions later on.

Mursuli said that since the 2006 elections Democracia has registered about 130,000 people nationwide. More than half of those registered voters, about 73,000, live in Florida — most in the southeast and central regions. In a place like central Florida’s I-4 corridor, which statisticians say is a key battleground this year, any bloc of voters may make or break the vote.

Democracia’s tally of which ethnic groups are registering isn’t reliable, Mursuli said, because each state’s voter registration form is different. The language used to capture the data isn’t clear at times and applicants don’t always write in their birth country.

In their door-to-door operations, Democracia USA and other voter advocacy and education organizations targeting immigrant voters are covering various groups, in different languages, in immigrant enclaves across the country.

In Miami’s Little Haiti, Jean-Marie Denis, the owner of Libreri Mapou bookstore, recognized the need for groundwork and found an approach that would be effective. A fixture in the community better known as “Jan Mapou”, Denis usually draws seekers of Haitian culture to his store’s wall-to-wall shelves of Creole, French, English and even Spanish publications. In the week leading up to the Oct. 6 registration deadline, he set up a registration post at his store and registered about 185 people.

Jan Mapou uses his bookstore as a voter training location.

"Jan Mapou" uses his bookstore as a voter training location.

Last Friday, Denis invited election workers to bring a voting machine to Libreri Mapou, so that the neighborhood’s residents could practice filling out ballots before early voting began Monday. The event was advertised on Haitian radio. For three hours that afternoon, about thirty people streamed in to learn about the process. Some literally did a walk-through, where they approached the voting machine with a completed sample ballot in hand and pushed the paper through the scanner.

“This year, I’m happy, I’m flattered, because I want to participate in this election,” Marie Fernande Napoleon, a North Miami mother of three, said after trying out the machine. “If I didn’t go for it and become a citizen, I would have regretted it very much.

“Eight years ago when I couldn’t vote, that really hurt me,” Napoleon added. “That’s why I said I have to get involved this year. [Naturalization] became a necessity, because you’re after a better life. When you’re a citizen, you can change things.”

Pierre Audain is one of about a dozen election workers who demonstrate the trilingual machines’ operation —the ballots are in English, Spanish and Creole— across inner city neighborhoods. Audain said he alone has taught roughly 1,500 people since the voter turnout efforts began after the primaries, six weeks ago. He’s bombarded with requests from area immigrant advocacy groups and has performed an average of at least one daily demonstration.

“The people are more enthusiastic this year,” Audain said. “They want to make sure they don’t lose their votes.”

One of the organizations seeking help to train voters is Haitian Women of Miami, a group with an office about 25 blocks north of Mapou’s bookstore. The organization, known by its Creole acronym FANM, also uses immigrant voters to call around the neighborhood to remind people who are registered to vote. FANM has been doing voter education and registration year-round since 2000.

Monday, while the limelight shone on Hillary Clinton’s rallies in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, FANM’s executive director Marleine Bastien took twenty newly-registered Haitian women and elderly voters to vote at Miami’s Government Center downtown. They also participated in a get-out-the-vote rally that drew about 400 new voters of all ages and ethnicities, Bastien said. [You can see a video of the rally here.]

Bastien added the new voters were fulfilling the promise of “Today we march, tomorrow we vote,” made on the streets of many U.S. cities in 2006, when millions demanded an immigration reform that would later fail in Congress. On Monday, some of the same immigrants donned white T-shirts stating: “Yesterday we marched, today we vote.”

“They sang, they danced, they cried,” Bastien said. “They did not believe they would see the day to this historic happening. They never had a chance to vote in Haiti, they were happy to be given a chance here.”

With such efforts to educate, register and encourage people to participate in the process, Americans win, no matter which candidate is elected Nov. 4, said Mursuli, of Democracia USA.

“It’s a fantastically competitive race,” Mursuli said. “So whoever wins, the voters win. No one gets a free ride.”

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Feet in 2 Worlds (Fi2W) is an independent media outlet, journalism training program, and launchpad for emerging immigrant journalists and media makers of color. Our work brings positive and meaningful change to America's newsrooms and has a broader impact on how immigration is reported and the ethnic and racial composition of news organizations.