A citywide push to bring immigrants into the voting booth appeared to gain momentum last Tuesday, with exit polling showing that more than 40 percent of first-time voters in New York City were foreign born. Though New York’s role in the presidential race was a foregone conclusion this time around, proponents of the immigrant vote hope that gains this year will influence hotly contested local elections in 2009.

Some 2.3 million New Yorkers voted this year, about 3 percent more than 2004. Although the exact number of foreign-born voters awaits tabulation by the Board of Elections, the New Americans Exit Poll (pdf), sponsored by the New York Immigration Coalition, suggests that the high turnout of first-time immigrant voters is in keeping with trends going back to at least 2000. The enthusiasm of these voters may also reflect ongoing outreach efforts by local groups, often using non-citizen volunteers.

Ana María Archila, co-director of the community organizing group Make The Road New York, says that this year her team reached 16,000 new voters in the 13th Congressional district on Staten Island, using volunteer canvassers who were mostly Latino, many undocumented. “They can’t vote, but obviously they can energize voters in their neighborhoods,” she said. “The external goal of this campaign is turning out voters in high numbers, but we also have the internal goal of building leadership. And they are equally important.”

Though 501(c)3 nonprofit organizations that promote voter turnout cannot endorse particular candidates, groups like Make The Road are interested in building the political clout of immigrants. Immigrants tend to vote in lower numbers than the general population, but "get out the vote" campaigns can make a difference. Since the New York Immigration Coalition, launched its first voter registration drive in 1998, the umbrella organization has partnered with community groups to galvanize the immigrant vote. John Mollenkopf, director of the Center for Urban Research at the City University of New York, found that canvassing efforts directed by the Coalition boosted turnout by 7.5 percent in the 2006 elections. This year, 14 groups, from the Arab American Association of NY to the Russian American Voter Education League, targeted a total of 58,000 voters through door-to-door canvassing, phone calls and mailings.

On a crisp Sunday two weeks before the election, volunteers packed the office of New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE), a Coalition member in Jackson Heights, Queens. Ecuador native Alicia Irzueta flipped through her walk list as Andrew Silverstein, a civic engagement organizer, gave the group a crash course in canvassing techniques. Next to her, Lina Perez and son Juan Carlos prepared for their third round of canvassing. “Around here, many of those who vote are representing an entire family of people who can’t,” said Juan Carlos, a Mexican citizen.
        
Irzueta’s route took her down a street of apartment blocks to Roosevelt Avenue. “We are here with NICE to support the Hispanic vote,” Irzueta said to whoever opened the door—a mother with a crying baby, an old lady baking bread, a man in the process of getting dressed—and urged them to keep key principles in mind when casting their votes: immigration reform, universal health care, labor rights. One man on her list was registered at a corner restaurant, and she found him hard at work on the grill. “What’s the point of voting, when council members just decide the election for themselves?” he said, waving his spatula. “And besides, organizing the Hispanic vote is like trying to get chickens to stand in line.”

Irzueta didn’t disagree. On the way back to the NICE office, she confided that she had problems of her own: She and her husband of fifty years, a disabled American citizen, were fighting an eviction order. However, she canvassed not only for the enjoyment of talking with her neighbors, but also out of a political commitment that went back to her days in Guayaquil. “I want politicians to pay more attention to people like me,” she said.

Silverstein said that volunteers like Irzueta not only reminded people to vote, but helped sort out confusion about ID requirements and polling sites on election day. “At the beginning, people were hesitant to knock on doors, but then their confidence grew,” he said. “Now, because they’ve been mobilizing voters, they feel it’s more legitimate for them to speak to politicians or the media.”

For organizers like Silverstein and Archila, the presidential election was in a sense a dry run for 2009, when their voter mobilization efforts could have real impact on races for City Council, the state Senate, and the mayor’s office. In Jackson Heights, the 2006 state Senate primary race was decided by about 200 votes, Silverstein said. “If we show that we can mobilize voters, that we move people, then politicians have to pay attention.”

They will have hard numbers to show in December, when Mollenkopf and Lorraine Minnite, a political scientist at Barnard College, will release a study that uses a control group to measure the impact of the Coalition's outreach. In the meantime, it’s back to pre-election planning. “We’re going to take a couple weeks’ break,” said Archila of Make the Road. “Then we’ll get back on our feet and figure out how to firm up the political power of the groups we work with.”

- Lindsey McCormack