As the June 7 California primary nears, voting controversies have been making headlines across the country. Now California has delivered major surprises for one nonprofit organizing to get out the refugee vote in San Diego.
Every state maintains voter rolls, and run programs intended to keep lists “current and accurate,” but according to Project Vote, “poorly developed 'voter purge' programs have often led to the mass disenfranchisement of eligible voters.”
According to the California secretary of state’s numbers, between February 2015 and January 2016, the number of registered voters in California fell by over 450,000 people. San Diego County, with just 8% of the state’s population, saw 28% of the voters dropped. But that percentage gets even worse when you look at refugee voters.
Ramla Sahid works at Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans (PANA), and uses a voter database to plan get-out-the-vote campaigns.
“We saw a 75% drop in registered refugee voters. In August 2015, we ran the numbers and found over 30,000 registered voters in San Diego who were likely of refugee background,” said Sahid, “But after the purge last fall, we saw that same number drop to just over 6,000.”
Refugee voter engagement is especially important in San Diego, where upwards of 1 in 40 county residents is of refugee background. These eligible voters face unique barriers to vote, including ballots not translated into most refugee languages, few accessible polling stations in refugee neighborhoods, and extra difficulties at the polls since many refugees share the same “Jane Doe” legal birthdate: January 1. Despite these barriers, many refugees turn out to vote every chance they get.
“Back in 2013, one refugee mom was turned away from the poll 3 times before she was finally able to vote,” said Sahid.
And now, this voter purge may add a new barrier. “Groups like us know about routine purges, but nobody saw this coming.” continued Sahid, “When most voters' names vanished, we had to totally readjust our strategy, with a renewed focus on registering people who may not know they’re no longer registered.”
When a 2012 review claimed 24 million voter registrations were inaccurate or no longer valid, the California Research Bureau (CBR) wrote an overview about this process:
“If it is true that 24 million registration records are inaccurate or no longer valid, current efforts might be insufficient.”
The CBR paper continued, “...More aggressive attempts to clean voter lists may increase the likelihood that eligible individuals are also removed … In cases where individuals are not given notice of cancellation or an opportunity to challenge their removal from voter lists, nontrivial portions of the electorate could be disenfranchised. An extreme example of this occurred during Florida’s 2000 purge, where as many as 12,000 eligible voters were removed from registration lists.”
Back in 2008, leading up to the Obama’s first presidential election, the New York Times reported that “ens of thousands of eligible voters in at least six swing states have been removed from the rolls or have been blocked from registering in ways that appear to violate federal law.”
This removal of voters in California may not violate any law, but it certainly poses new challenges where many already exist for refugees who have fled war or persecution to become U.S. citizens. This year, PANA is taking on this challenge with a campaign to turn out the refugee vote.