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Mail-In Ballots Help but Don’t Remove All Voting Barriers

Voting by mail can make it easier for people of color to cast their ballots. But there are still language barriers, a lack of community outreach and government distrust that discourage many from feeling safe enough to vote.

(TNS) — People of color vote more often in Washington state than they did 15 years ago when most counties switched to vote by mail, according to election and census data reviewed by McClatchy.

Still, hurdles to registration and voting that seldom plague white people remain persistent in some communities of color, according to interviews with leaders and those eligible to vote.

Language barriers, lack of community outreach, distrust of government and a lack of confidence in the voting process all plague communities of color in Washington, McClatchy learned.

But activists and others are striving to increase voter participation in minority populations. "I am a person that has a right (to be heard) just as much as anybody else," said Kimsang Lor, a 44-year-old Tacoma Cambodian American voting rights activist. Most Washington counties adopted universal vote by mail between the 2004 and 2006 federal elections.

"I remember going to the polls, and it was intimidating," said Veronica Hinojosa, 54, a Gig Harbor social worker. "I did not like going to the polls, because they don't teach you how to use them."

Overall, 51 percent of Washington's voting-eligible population cast ballots during the four congressional - or "off-year" - elections in 2006 and later, according to data compiled by the U.S. Election Project.

That's up from an average of 45 percent during the four elections before 2006.

Washington's voting-eligible residents of color have also been increasing their participation in elections since vote by mail went into full effect, according to Census Bureau data.

The data is based on comparing census data with precinct-level overall voting participation. Elections officials do not track voter participation based on race.

The figures on voters of color have a substantial margin of error, largely because Washington is not as racially diverse as many other states.

In Pierce County

Pierce County's most ethnically diverse area -- which is primarily Black and Latino -- borders the eastern side of Interstate 5 and stretches south of state Route 512 in Parkland and north to Tacoma's city limits.

Voter participation increased in that area during congressional and presidential elections after the widespread implementation of universal mail voting.

About 62 percent of registered voters in precincts in that area cast ballots during the 2000 and 2004 presidential election, before universal mail balloting was widely adopted statewide. By comparison, an average of 67 percent of registered voters in those precincts cast ballots in the next three presidential elections.

About 42 percent of registered voters in precincts in the county's most ethnically diverse area cast ballots during the 2002 congressional election, before universal mail balloting was widely adopted statewide. By comparison, an average of 44 percent of registered voters in those precincts cast ballots in the last four congressional elections.

Some of the change in voter participation may be due to factors other than mail-in voting, including changing precinct boundaries and neighborhood demographics.

The Latino Vote

Latinos make up the second largest racial population in Washington, behind whites. And they're growing.

The most recent census data has Latinos as 13 percent of the state's population, up from 7.5 percent in 2000. But the group's representation in elected government offices has not kept pace with its growth.

"If we don't have representation, our voices are not going to be heard," said Sara Irish, an immigrant from Mexico. "We are never going to be able to do anything."

Irish, who works in community engagement for Molina Healthcare in Pierce County, has volunteered with various Latino and general community get-out-the-vote campaigns.

"I can be influential and help others to register to vote and take advantage of the privilege and the right of voting," she said.

Irish said first-generation Latinos often have a fear of sharing too much information with the government.

"And for them to get registered or provide information to the government, where they are going to know where they live, that is a little worrisome," she said.

That fear can permeate naturalized citizens.

"People who become citizens, they're also afraid, because it's no guarantee anymore that you are safe," she said.

Registration in the United States requires more initiative compared with Mexico, she said. There, voter registration is a necessary part of life.

"Even to go to the bank and cash your check, getting a passport or visa or something to travel, you have to bring your voter registration card," Irish said. "It is the most trusted source of information about each individual."

Still, elections are often corrupt in Mexico, she said.

"Even though people vote, it is already assigned, who's going to win," she said.

That can lead to voter apathy.

"Their voice is not going to be heard," she said. "Who wants to do something for nothing?"

Irish would like to see more voter education outreach from government officials to Latinos. That includes community meetings in English and Spanish.

She would like to see Spanish language versions of the voter guide.

Irish said it's a duty of all citizens to vote.

"When they become a citizen, one of the obligations is to serve this country," she said. "It's a privilege to be able to vote, because not everybody can do it. Otherwise, if we don't participate, we cannot complain."

Irish and her friends are volunteering to pick up ballots and deliver them to drop-off boxes for the Nov. 3 elections.

"And we don't care what affiliation you have," she said. "We just want to make sure that your ballot makes it on time to the box."

Second Generation

Hinojosa grew up in Sunnyside, the daughter of immigrants from Mexico. She said her farmworker parents didn't talk much about voting.

"I don't remember growing up hearing anyone really talking to me about the importance of getting involved civically, and voting," Hinojosa said.

Her parents had a third grade education. They became citizens about 2000.

Hinojosa first voted while in college. In those days, it was all at polls.

Voting by mail changed her behavior, she said. She doesn't have to stand in line or make last-minute decisions.

"When I get my ballot, I have an opportunity to go through and take time to look at what's in there; to think about what I want to vote for; who I want to vote for," she said. She's doesn't miss polling places.

Hinojosa has a six-person household. They are all registered to vote and have voting parties before elections.

"We'll get together and we'll talk about, and we'll fill out our ballots," she said. "And we seal them and then we'll mail them."

Although registration forms come in Spanish and other languages, ballots do not. That can be a problem.

"It's all in English," Hinojosa said. "So, that can be intimidating."

Then there is general mistrust of the government. Hinojosa said that Latinos might not want to expose their family members to unnecessary scrutiny.

She also said voting by people of color can be indirectly suppressed because they are convicted of crimes at higher rates, compared to whites.

Hinojosa thinks reaching out to ethnic groups by people from within those communities can increase voter participation.

"Many groups don't trust people from the government, but they trust people within their community," she said.

Living Under a Dictator

Liesl Santkuyl once spent her days registering people to vote at farmers markets, Tacoma Housing Authority's Salishan community and at other locations.

"We always had registration papers with us," she said. "I still carry all of the paperwork in my car."

Born in Venezuela, Santkuyl grew up in the United States. Today, she's a manager at the College Success Foundation, a nonprofit organization that assists low-income, first-generation students of color to pursue college educations.

Just registering to vote is a hurdle in the Latino community, Santkuyl said.

"It's not common knowledge that you register to vote," she said.

Although she left Venezuela as a baby, she returned to live for a few years in her late teens and early 20s. Compared with Venezuela, voting seems to be more optional in the U.S., she said.

But presidential politics can ignite passions, she said, and this year it's causing an uptick in registrations in the Latino community.

Latin America is vast, comprising Mexico, Central America, South America and Caribbean islands. It's not all homogeneous.

Central and South American immigrants often have a different take on government and voting compared with their Mexican neighbors, Santkuyl said.

Dictators and Latin America were intertwined in the 20th century. Haiti's Francois Duvalier, Chile's Augusto Pinochet, Panama's Manuel Noriega, Peru's Alberto Fujimori, Cuba's Fidel Castro are just some who shaped their countries' histories.

But, where 20th Century dictators seized power and often used brutal tactics to keep it, 21st century Latin American dictators use sham democracies to stay in power, says Jose Mauricio Ganoa, a Harvard Law School researcher and author.

Some immigrants see echoes of those regimes in current American politics, Santkuyl said.

"I think even Latin American people right now are like, this feels like Latin America," she said.

The cynicism that Central and South Americans felt in their home countries can stay with them, Santkuyl said.

"I think that that carries over into the United States," she said. "There's not an optimism that your vote makes a difference. It feels much more like this is the machinery of politics."

In her 20s, Santkuyl spent three years in Guatemala with the Peace Corps during the country's long running civil war. It's estimated that up to 200,000 Guatemalans died in the conflict. Entire Mayan villages were wiped out.

Fluent in Spanish, she would engage locals in villages and bus trips along the Pan American Highway.

"I would have lots of whispered conversations," she said. She would ask Guatemalans why they didn't rise up against the repressive regime in power.

"People would say, you don't know what it's like to have a family member disappear," she recalled. "Or somebody shut up by armed people showing up in the middle of the night."

That kind of fear persists and bleeds down to future generations.

"I think it makes it even harder to get people to trust in the process of government here when you come to the United States," she said. "The government is not to be trusted in some ways. Or, there's a lot of cynicism. Does your vote really count?"

How We Did This Story/Caveats

McClatchy used data from the U.S. Elections Project, the U.S. Census Bureau and several county elections offices in Washington to determine voter participation rates for this story.

Voter participation rates for the entire state came from the U.S. Elections Project. The rates look at the percentage of the "voting-eligible" population that cast ballots. The voting-eligible population is the adult population minus non-citizens, the incarcerated and felons.

Voters do not list their race when registering to vote or voting. The U.S. Census Bureau conducts a survey after every even-year election that includes questions about voter participation, along with questions about race, ethnicity and age. McClatchy used the results of this survey to determine turnout rates by race, ethnicity and age.

Since the survey is based on a sample of the population, it has a margin of error. For some ethnic groups, the margin of error is large. To mitigate this, McClatchy averaged turnout rates across several elections when possible.

At the neighborhood level, there is no specific data available on the ethnic makeup of voters. As a proxy, McClatchy identified the census tract in several Washington counties with the highest proportion of residents of color. It then identified the voting precincts that corresponded most closely with those tracts and looked at voter participation trends in those precincts. Boundaries for census tracts and voting precincts usually don't match perfectly. In addition, the boundaries for voting precincts change over time The demographic makeup of neighborhoods also changes over time. These boundary and demographic changes may affect voting participation rates for these areas over time.

(c)2020 The News Tribune (Tacoma, Wash.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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