Voting is a right that is not guaranteed. This is a reality that native-born Americans may easily forget, yet many immigrants and refugees know deeply.
Since the Voting Rights Act was partially dismantled in 2013, we see efforts to limit, obstruct and deny access to the ballot every day.
“Aung” (an alias, for privacy) knows this very well. She grew up in a country ruled by a military dictatorship: There were no referendums, no elections, no opportunities for the people to make their voice heard.
Aung came to the U.S. a couple years ago as a refugee with her husband and children. Her husband died soon after they arrived, so she started working full time in a minimum wage, food service job to support her kids. In the evenings, Aung attended citizenship and ESL classes at Refugee Women’s Alliance (REWA). She was so motivated to improve her English, her teacher was convinced Aung would spend all her time studying if she didn’t have to work full time.
Soon Aung was eligible to pass the citizenship exam and she became a U.S. citizen. And although Aung has so many other daily struggles raising a family on her own, when election season rolls around, she makes it a priority to complete her ballot.
Voting can be very confusing for someone participating in our election system. On top of that, for many new citizens this may be the first time they have ever voted in their lives. And then the 50+ page voter education pamphlet arrives in the mail.
This is where REWA comes in: Voter education materials are rarely translated, so before each election, REWA helps hundreds of individuals with limited English proficiency register to vote and, when their ballots arrive, understand ballot measures and candidate information, fill out and sign the ballots correctly and return their ballots on time. This is something Aung has already done four times in the past year, including general elections and all primaries.
For Aung, voting is a serious, almost sacred duty. She comes to REWA with her ballot and voter education pamphlet in hand. She’s ready with questions about the issues. And sometimes, long conversations ensue about the possible impacts of her vote — whether it be about limiting car tab fees that fund public transit or the impact of selecting the State Insurance Commissioner.
REWA is among 39 community organizations that received a grant from the Seattle Foundation and King County to provide voter education in 2019-2020. Most of these groups register thousands of new voters through mass mailings or by tabling outside of grocery stores. But for REWA, most of this work is done by a dedicated staff person and a handful of outreach volunteers fluent in Vietnamese, Arabic, Russian and Somali. They work one-on-one to make sure new voters with limited English have the support they need to make their voices heard in our democratic process.
Voting in the United States has significant consequences for the rest of the world. The vote impacts trade and foreign policies, climate change and — as the COVID-19 pandemic has made clear — our very ability to continue to draw breath.
The late U.S. Congressman John Lewis said the vote must be cherished and exercised in the name of those who sacrificed everything for it. Aung and many other newly naturalized U.S. citizens know this very well.
So make a plan and vote by Nov. 3.
Mahnaz Eshetu is the executive director of Refugee Women’s Alliance (REWA).
Read more of the Oct. 14-20, 2020 issue.