Barriers to Access: New American Voters
Updated: Oct 28, 2021
Today, we’re back with another installment of our series on barriers to voting access. If you’d like to catch up on past posts, you can check them all out here, and if there’s a specific group that you’d like us to cover, feel free to drop us a line - we’d love to hear from you!
This week, we’re taking a look at the barriers that keep new Americans away from the polls. According to the Pew Research Center, a record 23 million U.S. immigrants were eligible to vote in 2020: that’s about 10% of the electorate. But, though the immigrant share of the population continues to increase, immigrants’ voter turnout rates continue to lag those of U.S.-born voters: in 2016, 62% of U.S.-born eligible voters cast a ballot, compared to 54% of their foreign-born counterparts. And, as we know by now, disparate voter turnout rates are usually no accident.
First things first: to be eligible to vote in a federal election, new Americans must first become citizens. Easy enough, right?
Wrong. The naturalization process can take years and is prohibitively expensive for many (the application fee alone is over $700). If you can afford it, the process doesn’t get easier from there: next, you have to pass a series of interviews and an exam (one which roughly one in ten new Americans fail).
But, let’s say you’ve paid all the necessary fees and passed your citizenship test. Congratulations! Unfortunately, there are more barriers coming your way. A number of states require you to provide proof of citizenship to register to vote: your brand new proof of naturalization certificate. Misplaced it? A replacement will cost you $555 and take about a year to process. Maybe next election?
In 2020, language barriers kept more than eight million U.S. citizens from voting.
Nearly 40% of eligible new American voters say they speak English “less than very well”. Technically, that shouldn’t be a problem: Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act requires officials to provide translated election information and bilingual poll workers if their jurisdiction includes at least 5% of eligible voters or 10,000 voters (whichever is less) with limited English proficiency in a single language group.
Unfortunately, even when it does apply, Section 203 isn’t enforced: election officials have repeatedly failed to translate ballots, recruit bilingual poll workers and distribute multilingual voter education materials. And where it doesn’t apply, when there are too few members of a language group to warrant language services, new Americans are left in the dust. In 2016, states that were decisive in the outcome of the election had hundreds of thousands of voters that needed but didn’t receive language assistance: Pennsylvania alone had 111,511 voters that weren’t covered under Section 203. And they weren't the only ones: in 2016, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin all had more unassisted voters than the margin of the presidential election in their state.
What we can do
Historically, get-out-the-vote-efforts have bypassed most new Americans, as, by definition, they have no voter history. Groups conducting voter outreach (holding voter registration drives, door-knocking efforts, sending out paper mailers) have a responsibility to make those efforts inclusive of all voters, regardless of their place of birth or language ability.
We encourage you to support immigrant advocacy groups like APIAVote and the Asian American Justice Coalition, which provide a voter hotline providing assistance to voters in nine Asian languages; and Voto Latino and Aqui Se Vota!, both of which conducted tremendous Spanish-language outreach in 2020.
And we’re proud to say that in this fall's elections, the Voter Formation Project will have programming aimed at helping underserved communities to register and turn out to vote in English and Spanish-- we practice what we preach.
Thanks for reading, y’all! Talk soon.
“American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.” – James Baldwin