Study: Lack of Information, Language Barriers Keep Immigrants from Voting

by Bryan Nakata

A new survey by the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs shows that almost half of the immigrants surveyed in Seattle do not know how or where to register vote, a community that already votes at lower rates than U.S.-born residents.

According to the survey, immigrants are deterred from voting due to a lack of information and language barriers. Overall, only about one-third said it was “very easy” to find information about the candidates in their preferred language.

“I think it’s hard enough for busy working people to navigate our electoral system even if they’re native speakers,” said Doug Rand, who formerly worked on immigration policy for the Obama White House and currently is the co-founder of Boundless Immigration, a technology company that helps families navigate the immigration process. “When you add the language barriers it’s no surprise that immigrant communities are deterred from voting in ways that none of us should find acceptable.”

The survey of 5,500 immigrants in Seattle was conducted in response to a 2015 immigrant voting Task Force report called for by Former Mayor Ed Murray’s office, which found that eligible Seattle immigrants vote less than their peers and register to vote at lower rates.

Foreign-born residents make up almost one-fifth of Seattle. However, King County translates the voter’s pamphlets into only four languages besides English. Federal Law requires them to translate election materials into Chinese and Vietnamese, while King County Council passed an ordinance in 2015 that required Spanish and Korean.

These languages are largely spoken in only half of the top ten countries of origin for Seattle immigrants measured in 2014: China, Vietnam, Mexico, Canada, and South Korea. The translations do not include the main languages spoken in Philippines, Ethiopia, India, Somalia and Japan. This is especially troubling when 43 percent of immigrants speak English less than “very well,” according to another Office of Immigration and Refugee Affairs report. In 2016, King County Elections had a 60 percent increase in requests for materials in immigrants’ native languages, demonstrating a need for more translations.

Masih Fouladi, executive director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, sees firsthand the complications from language barriers. The immigrants he works with are largely of Somalian, Middle Eastern, Southeast Asian, and African descent.  The organization often gets reports of difficulty voting.

“We’re not aware of any options that are offered,” Fouladi said of alternatives to translated voting guides. “It is a concern for us as an organization — given the relatively large number of Somali descent and Ethiopian immigrants there are, there aren’t these resources provided for them. It’s something we’re going to work with local representatives on.”

As of right now, King County has no plans to increase the number of languages translated for election materials. The county ordinance requires that materials be translated when a language has 10,000 or more limited-English-proficient residents. Currently, Tagalog and Russian are the next possible languages based on this number, according to King County Elections Communications Officer Kafia Hosh.

Although there are no plans for more translations yet, the voting registration process was made much easier when Gov. Jay Inslee implemented automatic voter registration earlier this year. The universal voter-registration law requires the state Department of Licensing to automatically register citizens obtaining their driver’s license or identification card. This means that newly naturalized citizens are automatically registered to vote, streamlining the process for immigrants and refugees.

At the same time, economic problems are hindering immigrants at a higher rate. According to the NAE City Index by New American Economy, which measures major cities on different aspects of immigration, Seattle ranks highly in governmental assistance, but only average in areas related to economic options. Both high- and low-skilled foreign workers experience poverty at a much higher rate than U.S.-born citizens. Foreign-born residents are also struggling more often to find affordable housing. Nearly 40 percent are struggling to pay rent, spending over 30 percent of their income on housing alone.

These data points coincide with the results of the Office of Immigration and Refugee Affairs study, which recorded affordable housing, employment and education as the top priorities listed by immigrants and refugees.

“The top issue priorities were overwhelmingly local issues,” Rand said. “It’s critically important for immigrants to make their voices heard at the local level.”

“For our community, it’s important for us to vote so we have representation at the local, state and federal level so they understand the qualities and the benefits that our community brings,” Fouladi said. “We make sure to register to vote and get informed on the issues so we make it count.”

While registration by mail and online is now closed for the November election, people can register in person until Oct. 29. See where you can register here.


Featured Photo: Dagmawit Kemal reads an English voter registration guide inside Suzzallo Library at the University of Washington on Oct. 15, 2018. As an immigrant from Ethiopia, Kemal’s first language, Amharic, is not among the languages available from King County Elections voting materials. Language barriers are one of the reasons immigrants are deterred from voting, according to a new study by the Seattle Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs. (Photo: Bryan Nakata)

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