Immigrant Voters: New York’s New Soccer Moms?

The front page of last Sunday’s New York Times Metro section made much of the emergence of immigrants as an increasingly important voting bloc in New York City electoral politics, particularly with a view toward next year’s municipal elections.

The acknowlegment of immigrant voting power flies in the face of conventional wisdom, which has long said immigrants are not as engaged in US politics as those of their home countries.

According to the New Americans Exit Poll Project (conducted by Columbia University) and a recent analysis by CUNY’s Center for Urban Research, the number of immigrant voters is on the rise in New York City. What’s more, immigrants are responsible for much of the expansion of the city’s electorate.The CUNY study found at least a third of new voters added to the city’s voter rolls since 2004 were Russian, Chinese, Korean, or Muslim.  These new faces and ethnicities in the city’s electorate join the roughly one million immigrants already registered to vote in New York.

According to the New York Immigration Coalition (NYIC), a nonpartisan immigrant advocacy group that registers new citizens to vote, over 265,000 immigrants have been added to the city’s voter rolls since 1996.In a city where City Council races are won and lost by a margin of 5,000 votes, this infusion of new voters puts a distinctly New York spin on the nation’s growing realization that immigrant voters are crucial to political races.

I ran the NYIC’s nonpartisan immigrant voter registration and education project for over four years from 2000-2004.That experience gave me insight into the trend referenced by the Times. This phenomenon has garnered recent mainstream media attention, but the city’s ethnic media has known and covered it for several years.

During my time running the project, 70%-75% of new citizens consistently registered to vote – at rates slightly higher than the national voter registration average of 68% in 2006, according to the US Census.

Nationally, much of the mainstream media’s coverage of immigrant voters has characterized this segment of the electorate as an overwhelmingly Latino voting bloc.Yet the profiles of New York City’s and New York State’s immigrant voters look very different, and are also strikingly diverse: they’re nearly equally divided between Latinos, Asians, Europeans, Canadians, and individuals from the Caribbean and Africa.Over 170 languages are spoken in New York’s immigrant communities, some of which are large enough to justify translated voter registration forms and ballots in Spanish, Chinese, and Korean in accordance with the US Voting Rights Act.

(Click here for one of my recent posts on just how crucial Latino voters will be in battleground states in the Southwest; we’ve also been highlighting the Presidential campaigns’ escalating efforts to woo these voters in these other posts.)

Ethnic media has addressed the immigrant-audience’s hunger for political information with articles, informed newscasts (Los Angeles’ and New York’s Spanish-language evening television news are the nation’s first and second-highest rated local news broadcast among all viewers nationally), public service announcements, and explanations of key election issues.

The growing numbers of immigrant voters – representing a diverse spectrum of ethnicities, languages, and races – has profound implications for the future of retail politics in New York City.  In earlier eras city politics divided voters into only a few groups: such as Black, white, Jewish, or Puerto Rican.

Today there’s an unprecedented complexity to the newly-engaged immigrant vote: one that candidates and campaigns must acknowledge. Next year promises seismic shifts among the city’s political structure: the Mayor, Comptroller, Public Advocate, four of five Borough Presidents, and two-thirds of the City Council are term-limited. As immigrants account for a larger share of the city’s electorate, candidates and campaigns will no longer be able to lump immigrant voters together based on broad ethnic categories like ‘Latino’ or ‘Asian’ – as they’ve done in the past.Colombian, Mexican, and Dominican voters respond differently to campaign platforms on trade, immigration policy, and community development, for example.Indian and Bangladeshi voters have dramatically different grassroots political structures(Indian-American voters held multi-million dollar fundraisers for Hillary Clinton, while Bangladeshi voting activists organized their community through parent associations and mosques).

In largely immigrant boroughs like Queens (where several South Asian immigrant candidates have unsuccessfully tried to secure the Democratic nomination for State Assembly seats) and Brooklyn, which saw a veritable rainbow of immigrants running for an open City Council seat in last year’s municipal elections, immigrant voters are actually more engaged than many of their native-born counterparts.

As immigrants begin to realize their growing political clout and the campaigns begin to send out direct mail pieces to voters translated into Bengali, Chinese, Korean, Russian and even Urdu(for the past seven years, immigrant groups like the NYIC have been translating their nonpartisan voting rights materials into at least seven languages), retail politics in New York City will likely become even more of a spectator sport.