By Shipra Shukla
SAN FRANCISCO — Twice monthly, Democratic and Republican volunteers take up their positions outside Masonic Auditorium atop Nob Hill, ready for the latest wave of immigrant citizens to emerge from the swearing-in ceremonies held there.
“The idea is to get [new citizens] to register for your party before they leave,” said a Democratic Party volunteer outside Masonic Auditorium who requested anonymity.
Equipped with buttons, stickers, signs, candidate endorsements and voter-registration cards, the party volunteers give newly minted citizens a taste of what most observers say is ordinary, and legal, electioneering.
But advocates say that many new citizens have not been informed of their rights as voters, and may lack the language skills and political education needed to decide what party — if any — they should join, and which candidates would best serve their interest.
“[Party recruiting] does seem more official when you’ve just left the naturalization ceremony,” said Maria Rogers Pascual, director of the Northern California Citizenship Project. “New immigrants may think that they have to register with one party or the other.”
She said the process could be improved by having nonpartisan, multilingual voter registration at citizenship ceremonies, staffed by trained volunteers who are closer to immigrant communities.
Both San Francisco Democrat and Republican leaders say outreach to newly sworn-in citizens has been enormously fruitful.
“We usually pick up between 30 and 50 new Republicans every time we go there,” said Leo Lacayo, a spokesman for the San Francisco Republican Party.
Melanie Nutter, executive director of the San Francisco Democrats, said that outreach at citizenship ceremonies was an important part of the party’s recruitment strategy.
“We reach a more diverse and wider group of potential voters,” she said.
Rayan El-Amine, program director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in San Francisco, said that the partisan outreach is trumping the more important goal of educating new voters.
“The two parties should not be the ones out there registering people,” he said. What’s needed are “organizations that have the immigrant’s interest in mind, not their own political party’s interest. We would want a non-partisan group doing the registering.”
The problem, said Clarissa Martinez, director of National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic-American advocacy group, is that during the election season, “[w]hen partisan passions run high, registration hasn’t been as transparent as possible. Politicizing the voter registration process is a disservice to everybody.”
Party officials in San Francisco said that their volunteer recruiters play by the rules.
“We don’t just register Republicans, but every party there is. Nondeclared as well,” said Lacayo.
“Obviously we’d love to have as many Democrats as possible,” said Nutter. “Legally, we need to register [new citizens] however they want.”
Henry Brady, a political science professor at the University of California in Berkeley, said that partisan electioneering is something new citizens should get used to.
“This is what democracy is all about, it’s a good lesson in what America is all about,” he said.
Richard DeLeon, a veteran San Francisco political observer and a professor at San Francisco State University, concurs.
“These new citizens should get into the fray,” he said, “electioneering by political parties is an important part of our political process.”
That most prominent of third parties, the Green Party, also backs the political education many new citizens get outside Masonic Auditorium.
“I think it is important that it’s partisan,” said Micheas Herman of the Green Party’s voter registration group. “The electoral system is a partisan-based system. These people have just become new citizens and it’s important they see that aspect of it. I would, however, like to see more presence of the Green Party.”
“The least likely to vote”
Margaret Zaknoen, Advocacy Coordinator for the Bay Area Immigrant Rights Coalition who is working on a project called Mobilize the Immigrant Vote said that educating these voters is just as important as registering them.
“New immigrants are the least likely to vote,” she said. “They may register, but they often don’t vote. The more educated they are about the process the more likely they are to vote.”
According to a study by the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Institute, the gap between new Asian and Latino citizens who registered to vote in 2000, and those who actually showed up at the polls, amounted to hundreds of thousands of lost potential votes.
Zaknoen’s organization is working with several community groups to address the issue, producing multilingual “voter palm cards” that list deadlines for registering, voting dates, absentee ballot details and phone numbers for more information.
The program also produces a four-page handout explaining the voting process — without the partisan stance.
She said that new citizens would also benefit from having more political parties — like Greens and Libertarians — waiting outside with the Democrats and Republicans.
In Los Angeles, Eun Sook Lee, executive director of the National Korean American Service and Education Consortium, said that the county registrar there does attend swearing-in ceremonies, but lacks the resources to do the job effectively.
“[T]hey are very understaffed. Unless community groups can send more people, then not as many people will get registered,” she said. “[N]ew citizens are inundated with information, and when they see someone from their own community speaking to them in their own language about the voter registration process, it makes a big difference.”
Best of all, said DeLeon, would be to have the county Registrar of Voters inside the auditorium, providing general voter information “before the new citizens are witness to the fray of political electioneering.”
San Francisco County Registrar of Voters John Arntz acknowledged the importance of nonpartisan voter education for new citizens, but affirmed that his department did not always have nonpartisan voter officials present at the swearing-in ceremonies.
He said that along with San Francisco, other Bay Area counties, including Alameda and San Mateo, sometimes did send staff — but such outreach isn’t mandated, and the money and personnel aren’t always available.
“Sometimes we don’t have the capacity for this kind of thing,” he said. “But it’s important and we should do it.”
Larisa Casillas, coordinator for Mobilize the Immigrant Vote 2004, said that a nonpartisan education for new citizens could pay dividends to democracy — though not necessarily to the individual political parties.
“If immigrants came out to vote proportional to the number that are actually registered to vote, then immigrants would be the swing vote,” she said. “We would be the ones that the politicians cater to.”
Additional writing and reporting by the editors.