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Assessing the Impact of Immigrant Voters

September 4, 2013 6:39 pm 2 Comments By  | A+ / A-
From left: Jaime Estades, director, Latino Leadership Institute at Hunter College; Sayu Bhojwani, founding director, New American Leaders Project; Doug Muzzio, professor at Baruch College and  Steve Choi, executive director, New York Immigration Coalition. (Photo by Shannon Firth/Voices of NY)

From left: Jaime Estades, president, Latino Leadership Institute at Hunter College; Sayu Bhojwani, founding director, New American Leaders Project; Douglas Muzzio, professor at Baruch College and Steve Choi, executive director, New York Immigration Coalition discuss the role of immigrant voters in the 2013 elections. (Photo by Shannon Firth/Voices of NY)

New York City’s immigrant communities are likely to play a significant role in determining the outcome of the city’s mayoral, borough and council races, agreed demographers, immigrant advocates and community media representatives who spoke September 4 at a conference hosted by the Center for Community and Ethnic Media at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

While it is impossible to predict exactly how different ethnic groups will vote, a new interactive site, the New York City Election Atlas 2013, produces maps that provide a detailed picture of both the ethnic make-up and the voting trends of the city’s neighborhoods, down to the level of U.S. census blocks. The atlas is a joint project of the Center for Urban Research at the Graduate Center/CUNY with the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and the Center for Community and Ethnic Media.

Significantly, the atlas can tell a tale “not just of two cities, but of two neighborhoods,” such as Jackson Heights, Queens, compared with its wealthier neighbor to the south, Forest Hills/Rego Park in Queens, noted Steven A. Romalewski, director of CUNY’s Mapping Service at the Center for Urban Research at the Graduate Center/CUNY.

The NYC Election Atlas 2013 breaks down voting patterns.  (Photo by Shannon Firth)

Steven A. Romalewski describes the voting data available in the NYC Election Atlas 2013. (Photo by Shannon Firth/Voices of NY)

What’s more, the atlas contains fine-grained demographic and income data that distinguishes between historical voting trends for, say, African American and Afro Caribbean voters.

Data like this, said Joe Wei, managing editor of the World Journal, a Chinese language daily, presents “the face of our community.” But even though the candidates are well aware of the importance of different ethnic groups in the city, their attempts to garner the support of particular ethnic voters can be haphazard at times.

Wei noted that because it’s widely assumed that mayoral hopeful John Liu has a lock on ethnic Chinese votes, the other candidates didn’t “really bother to come see us.” However, candidates for borough president, public advocate and City Council, Wei said, no matter their ethnicity, did a better job of reaching out to the paper to tell their stories.

To help make it easy for Chinese-speaking voters to make their selections in those races, Wei said, the paper gives candidates – like Jenifer Rajkumar who is challenging Councilwoman Margaret Chin – “Chinese names.”

“That’s very important. Each candidate when you seek public office in this city… you better prepare yourself a Chinese name,” said Wei. “Thompson, de Blasio, Bloomberg all have a Chinese name so we can recognize [them] and we would recommend the Election Board to put their Chinese name [on the ballot].”

There can be a “down-ballot” effect with non-citywide races pulling in ethnic voters, observed Douglas Muzzio, professor at Baruch College. In fact, sometimes an ethnic candidate can even prompt a wave of new voter registrations. That was the case in Minnesota, noted Sayu Bhojwani, founding director of the New American Leadership Project, when a Hmong candidate pulled in thousands of new Hmong voters.

In New York, public advocate candidate Reshma Saujani has garnered support from the South Asian community, Bhojwani noted, but there are only a handful of other South Asian candidates for voters from that ethnic group to get behind.

It’s a commonplace that ethnic voters “support their own” and that otherwise immigrant or ethnic voter turnout is typically low. But the NYC Election Atlas shows that voter support for individual candidates can be more nuanced than that.

And while turnout numbers have indeed been low for some ethnic groups, there are numerous roadblocks to the exercise of civic duty. Having to register to vote is an alien concept for immigrants from countries such as Korea, where registration is automatic, noted Steve Choi, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition.

Language problems may present potential voters with difficulties in registering, or it may not be possible for an immigrant worker to take time off from a low-paying job to vote.

The NYC Election Atlas reports an especially low turnout for the Latino community in the 2009 local elections.

Since the 2008 recession, said Jaime Estades, president of the Latino Leadership Institute, jobs have been considered the main issue of importance to Latino voters. But really, he said, whatever issue ­–­ be it health care, education or employment, “each one has been in crisis” for years as far as Latino voters are concerned.

If Latinos or other ethnic voters aren’t coming out to vote, said Estades, it’s because the candidates “haven’t invested in those communities.”

Members of the ethnic and community press attended the half-day conference. (Photo by Shannon Firth/Voices of NY)

Members of the ethnic and community press attended the half-day conference. (Photo by Shannon Firth/Voices of NY)

The panelists, speaking to about 50 attendees, agreed that immigrant voters face the same issues as non-immigrant voters, though they are complicated by two factors: language access and immigration status.

Even during the current campaign, said Estades, the mayoral candidates haven’t worked to register voters in ethnic communities. He cited the 1989 mayoral campaign of David Dinkins, which registered thousands of new voters that then proved pivotal in his historic victory, and other races since.

Bhojwani noted that there has been some progress from the days when the candidates’ approach to winning the support of ethnic voters could be summed up by:  “I’m going to come and dance to your music and eat your food.”  This election’s candidates understand that immigrant communities have specific issues and that they need to be responsive to those issues. But, she said, “we are nowhere near where we need to be.” 

Video of panel about the NYC Election Atlas 2013:

Video of panel about the role of immigrant voters in the 2013 elections:

Video of panel about using data and maps to improve political coverage:

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