Photo depicting a female-presenting individual wearing a purple-patterned headscarf depositing a King County Elections ballot into a blue ballot drop box.

New Americans, New Right to Vote

by Phil Manzano

It’s easy for those born in the United States to take the vote for granted.

But for those Annie Dimitras works with at the Refugee Women’s Alliance, or ReWA, the right to vote is taken seriously — almost like a sacred right.

“A lot of the people we work with at my organization are voting for the very first time, their very first opportunity,” said Dimitras, senior immigration & civic engagement program coordinator at ReWA. “They may be 70 and this is the first chance they’ve ever had to vote.”

Many of the clients she sees in ReWA’s free citizenship classes are low-income and come from all over the world — from East and North Africa to the Middle East to Southeast Asia. Some are refugees and lived for years or decades in refugee camps before they found their way to the U.S. And some come from authoritarian regimes, countries with different styles of governance, or even failed states.

As new Americans, the right to vote can be exciting — but also overwhelming. 

“It’s this new right you’ve never had and it carries a real weight to it,” Dimitras said. “They take it not just as a privilege but a very serious responsibility.”

“Some folks I work with, I mean, they get stressed out,” Dimitras continued. “When it’s their chance to vote, they’re really excited to have this opportunity. But at the same time, they want to be a good citizen and they want to make an informed choice.

“They want to understand, ‘who are these candidates? What is the role exactly that they are running for, what would be the possible impact of this and that?’ It’s so much information.”

Washington’s vote-by-mail system could be confusing for someone coming from a place where voting meant going to a polling place and getting a hand stamp. Or reading through a Voter’s Guide in a new language. Or the bewildering levels of judicial, district, city, county, state, and federal offices that new voters navigate.

“A big question I get asked a lot is, ‘How do I decide?’” Dimitras said. “They’ve never had the opportunity to decide before and they don’t know how to do it.”

The voter education work at ReWA isn’t just about registration. It’s woven into the citizenship classes. Even for those a year out from becoming naturalized citizens, ReWA provides education and even mock elections to practice going through the process. 

“They get some repetition, they start getting familiar with how voting works, and it also helps build confidence so that when they are eligible to vote, they feel ready.”

There is also continuing support, whether it’s with registration or explaining the ballot, to new voters online, on the phone, and one-on-one, if needed, and in multiple languages. 

In the last few years, since ReWA became a partner in the Voter Education Fund, they estimate they’ve reached 4,000 people and have assisted 500 people with registering to vote. And Dimitras says the more people learn about citizenship and voting, the more excited they become about participating in democracy. They begin seeing the connection between rights and responsibilities activated through the voting process.

“When I taught our [citizenship] class,” Dimitras said, “my favorite part of the curriculum was when we talked about First Amendment rights and the rights of all people in the U.S., regardless of citizenship status. For me that’s just something so important for everyone that lives here to know,” Dimitras said. 

“It’s such a special thing about being in America and a big reason why so many people we work with, who have come here as refugees — that freedom. You have these rights now. No one can take them from you. This is yours.”

This article is funded in part by a Voter Education Fund grant from King County Elections and the Seattle Foundation.

Phil Manzano is a South Seattle writer, editor with more than 30 years of experience in daily journalism, and is the interim news editor for the Emerald.

📸 Featured Image: Photo courtesy of King County Elections.

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