If you don’t vote, then you can’t complain. That’s been drilled into me since my four years at Philadelphia’s Masterman High School. That’s continued through my three years at Penn. So as a consequence, my first-ever vote came during November’s midterm elections [I didn’t become a citizen until my first year of college].
But as I cast my ballot, I wondered — who, really, was I voting for? As an Asian-American, I had no personal stake in seeing these candidates on the ballot win. They did not seem to be people who I can connect with on any level, much less people I’d trust to advocate for me. I felt disempowered.
I have reason to feel this way. There are 106,286 Asians living in Philadelphia, according to a 2013 American Community Survey. Out of this number, fewer than half — 51,921 — are eligible to vote. But by the count in City Councilman David Oh’s office, there were only 7,260 Asian-American registered voters this year. While this figure does not include Asians who may have chosen not to identify as Asian-American on their voter registration form, the message is still pretty clear: People who look like me just aren’t voting.
This is consistent with the overall status of voting in minority communities in the city, which include Asians and Latinos. These are two of the fastest-growing populations in the U.S., a trend reflected in the increase in immigration and the overall population in Philadelphia. Yet their — our — political representation isn’t growing anywhere near that fast. Why? Part of this low civic participation, experts say, may be that immigrants and naturalized citizens may not know they can vote. Or — unsure of their English, hesitant in their literacy — the registration process and the voting booth itself are hurdles too high to cross. This is in addition to a level of apathy or suspicion about the whole process.
All this translates into less representation in city government. So while politicians have been busy courting the black and the white votes in Philadelphia, there’s no political need to do the same for the Asian and Latino communities. We don’t command the same amount of political power. Our voices are diminished.
Barriers at every level
One of the first barriers to voting is the citizenship test. According to Natasha Kelemen, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Immigrant and Citizenship Coalition, around 40,000 city residents could become citizens tomorrow. But each would need to pass the English language exam and pay $680 — a prohibitive cost to many.
Kelemen says literacy rates are low in some of the immigrant populations in the city, such as with Liberian refugees. There’s already a complaint against the City Commissioners office, filed in April 2014 by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, for “failing and refusing to provide adequate Asian language assistance in the form of interpreters or translated voter registration forms.” In one instance, the complaint details, nine voters needed interpreters at their voting place. None were available.
This same issue affects Latino voters who may have limited English language skills, even though much of the paperwork is already offered in Spanish. But even though all voting places are supposed to be able to provide language services to all voters, “what happens is that election officials they may not have it available, or they may not be friendly toward doing that, or they may have forgotten about the training,” said Will Gonzalez, executive director at Ceiba, a coalition organization for Latino community-based groups.
Marisabel Isel, a naturalized citizen who registered to vote through PICC, believes lack of education is also an important reason. Isel wanted to vote because she had heard rumors about a bill that would force her to pay an extra tax as a legal resident who married an American, and she wanted to fight it. She learned that even after coming to America and living as a resident for many years, a legal resident did not have the same rights as a citizen. A resident could not vote.
“I educated myself about this,” she said, learning “where if I wanted things to change, I needed to vote.” Isel became a citizen and is now a dedicated voter. But for those who may not speak English as well, or for those in lower income brackets who work multiple jobs, there is little time or consideration for self-education.
I, like Isel, am a naturalized citizen who learned to vote. I didn’t face as many barriers as some. Having grown up in the U.S., and learning about the importance of the political process, I already had the privilege of knowing English and having people encourage me to participate. But I don’t share Isel’s optimism about voting.
Friends have called me pessimistic since middle school, but that’s not the whole reason. I became dispirited to realize that Presidents weren’t elected by popular vote — they won based on the Electoral College. I learned about how electoral maps are twisted by the party in power to give themselves an edge in elections. I didn’t want to be a part of this process. It was too political, and didn’t have enough to do with representing people.
I’m not alone in the apathy. Councilman-at-large Oh saw this throughout his office’s voter registration drive. “’Oh, it’s not going to work,’ people think,” he said. “People are very negative, ‘oh… my vote doesn’t count. Or this is some kind of trick to get me to do something.’”
Counting who votes
The exact numbers of who votes are murky. While everyone says that the voting rate in minority communities is low, no one study counts the percentage of the Latino or Asian population that votes in Philadelphia. Exit polls give an estimate of how many registered Latino/Asian voters came out in an election for big elections like the 2008 presidential one. But data for minority voters in local elections like last week’s midterm is not studied.
Regardless of the exact numbers, the participation is not high enough for folks like Gonzalez, who said,“there are some officials who will look you in the eye and tell you they do not give the Latino community much respect because it’s asleep.”
“Whatever the number is” of Latinos who are voting, he added. “I want more.”
The play of politics
What it boils down to is this: Politicians don’t need to reach out to these communities to win.
“We don’t want all these people to vote. We have a machine going on that wants to know who’s doing what and why,” said Nina Ahmad, chair of the mayor’s Commission for Asian American Affafirs, citing legislation like the Voter ID law, which was overturned after protesters said it would disenfranchise many voters.
“All [politicians] want to do is to have safe elections for themselves,” said Nelson A. Diaz, a former judge in Philadelphia who has worked on voter registration for 40 years. “You can’t blame them, that’s the process of politics, that’s just the way it is.”
Other areas of the country have started to recognize the potential in these growing populations. In Denver, two candidates for Congress had a debate in Spanish. Neither are native Spanish speakers.
But in Philadelphia, those who are elected have relied on traditional voter groups in the city. That means votes delivered by the Democratic party machine — like street money, which reinforces the status quo, said Diaz, now a lawyer at Dilworth Paxson, one of the city’s best-known law firms. The end goal is to mobilize voters in the ward leaders’ respective districts, usually another play for safety.
“They know who would vote for whom, they basically are leaders of that district in that area, they know who the potential voters are,” Diaz said.
The resting power of minority communities
We know the communities are not only growing nationwide, but also in Philadelphia. Between 2000 and 2009, the Latino and Asian population In Philadelphia grew by 58 and 36 percent respectively, according to a study by the Gonzalez Group. Nationally, newly naturalized immigrants and young adults from these groups make up some 33 percent of new voters this year.
But still: one Philadelphia City Council member who’s Latina; and one who’s Asian. “If you saw more people that looked like you in government, then you’d be more interested,” said Andy Toy, who ran for Council unsuccessfully twice and is now at Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation. “Then you might vote and then you get more people who look like you in city government.” But that, unfortunately, is not the case for the Latino and Asian populations of the city.
But there’s hope
All of these challenges facing minority voters paint a pretty bleak picture.
However, groups like PICC, which helps all immigrants, and Ceiba, which focuses on Latino communities, are optimistic about improving the current situation. PICC, for example, registers up to 150 new citizens to vote each week; most come from the five-county Philadelphia area. Kelemen also points to the election of Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez, now in her second term, as a promising step toward growing representation in the future. (Sanchez did not respond to Billy Penn’s request for comment.)
There are promising moments though. Diaz points to the voter turnout rate in 2012 for President Barack Obama’s re-election, where 48 percent of eligible Latino voters in the U.S. came out to cast their ballots.
“It proves it can be done,” he said. “The question is how can we emulate that practice continuously?”
And a better solution, Ahmad said, would be to making voting itself easier.
“I would think making voting accessible is a reward,” she said — in that case, everyone feels like “an important member of society, and you have a lot to offer.”
Image by user hjl on flickr
Correction: Natasha Kelemen’s name was misspelled as Keleman in a previous version of this article, it is Kelemen. Additionally, PICC does not work with the Cambodian refugee population in the city.