With grant to help, OLA aims to register new citizens
Once an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, Lucia Martinez of East Hampton will cast a ballot in the November general election for the first time as a naturalized citizen and newly registered voter.
Ms. Martinez saw how the major parties’ political campaigns were shaping up this year, heard what she said were discriminatory statements made all too often, and realized she wanted her voice to be heard.
“I never thought about voting or anything until this election. That’s when I decided I needed to do it,” said Ms. Martinez, a single mother who has been in the United States for more than 20 years and, after a three-year process of applying for citizenship, successfully achieved her goal about 11 years ago.
“At the beginning I felt nervous,” she said, referring to the voter registration process. “I thought, ‘What if they don’t count me?’ Then I felt very confident when they took my information and I received in the mail my card that said I’m registered to vote and where to go to vote.”
No one had to encourage Ms. Martinez to register, but she knows that will not be the case with other immigrant citizens who are eligible to do the same. That’s why she will be volunteering over the next several weeks with Organizacion Latino-Americana of Long Island, which recently received a grant to run a get-out-the-immigrant-vote registration drive on the East End.
The grant was provided by the New York Immigration Coalition and will vary in size up to about $10,000 based on the final expenses OLA incurs while registering new voters. But Minerva Perez, OLA’s executive director, said the funding will go far to “turn the tide of this apathy or feelings of powerlessness” that people may have during this election cycle.
“There’s so much going on that would make a person say, ‘Why bother?’ . . . That will never serve us as a country,” she said. “I want OLA to be a voice that counters that and says, ‘We need to do everything we can to put all of our voices in the mix.’ ”
OLA will set up tables in different communities at places like supermarkets, church events, and sporting events. There will also be door-to-doors and phone calls, for which names will be drawn from a special database to which Ms. Perez has been given access through the New York Immigration Perez has been given access through the New York Immigration Coalition. The process involves helping someone fill out a voter application form and making sure it gets to the Suffolk County Board of Elections by the registration deadline — applications must be postmarked by Oct. 14 and received by the board of elections by Oct. 19.
The grant stipulates that OLA’s efforts must be nonpartisan, meaning that support of specific political parties or candidates may not be encouraged during the voter registration process, Ms. Perez said.
OLA has an initial goal of registering 500 people, but Ms. Perez said she would love to see it climb into the thousands. The effort will also include the recruitment of new voters from other minority groups.
“I’m not going to turn someone away if they don’t have recent immigrant status,” Ms. Perez said. “There’s the connection also with diverse voters — linking up with other groups that might be African-American or Shinnecock, for example. We’ll make sure there is a focus on that as well.”
The New York Immigration Coalition calls immigrant voters “a powerful force” that has the ability to impact government policy.
Indeed, a “partisan divide over immigration” is emerging as a key issue in the 2016 presidential race, according to The Harvard Political Review. The journal reported in January that Republicans’ or Democrats’ “links to specific demographic groups,” such as Latino voters to name just one, may sway the vote. The Harvard Political Review cited research showing that among naturalized immigrants, 62 percent identified as Democrats. The blog Democracy: A Journal of Ideas has said voting by naturalized immigrants still lags far behind other groups in the general electorate.
According to the 2014 American Community Survey, 18.8 percent of year-round residents in East Hampton Town are foreign born, or about 4,100 people. Of that population, about 53 percent are U.S. citizens. In Southampton Town, the percentage of foreign-born, year-round residents is about the same at 18.8 percent, or 10,800 people, but of that population, 41.3 percent are U.S. citizens.
Isabel Sepulveda, who founded OLA about 14 years ago, said there is a large population of potential immigrant voters, and specifically Latino citizens, to reach out to across all of the East End. She said OLA used to run voter registration drives years ago, but stopped because of financial hurdles.
“This grant is huge,” she said. “We need it so bad. . . . The amount of Latinos who vote is very low. Some people register when they become citizens, but others have not done it.”
She speaks from experience, having observed what went on while working as an election inspector at the polls at Southampton High School for more than 10 years. People, she said, sometimes need “time and encouragement from other people” before registering to vote.
“The culture is different, the language is different,” Ms. Sepulveda said. “A lot of things are different and you need to learn.”
Ms. Martinez said she hopes the grant given to OLA will help get more new Latino citizens, in particular, registered to vote.
“If we let the people know that it’s safe to register, it’s okay to do it, then it will be helpful,” she said. “But they have to hear from us, from the same Latinos.”
Ms. Perez said momentum is key. “We need to keep generating the interest and excitement, because we need to bring that back into the forefront. You can’t sit on the couch and yell at the TV and get on Facebook and post a bunch of stuff. We need to be positively effective.”