From Citizenship to Voting: Improving Registration for New Americans

From Citizenship to Voting: Improving Registration for New Americans

December 19, 2011
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Despite controversy in the United States about immigration, most agree that when someone from another country goes through the difficult process of becoming a naturalized American citizen, he or she should be entitled to full participation in our nation's democracy.  The most fundamental form of participation is voting.  Voting is the means by which we seek to ensure every citizen has an equal voice in the decision-making process of the country and in our local communities.  It is how we ensure that our elected leadership truly represents the will of the people.
 
Yet in the U.S., there is a significant gap in the voter participation rates of native-born and naturalized American citizens, with naturalized citizens participating at a significantly lower rate than the native-born. This report assesses the gap in participation, and the reasons for it.  We conclude that the uniquely burdensome American voter registration process is a significant, if not the single biggest barrier to voting for naturalized Americans.
 
  • The significant difference in turnout rates between native-born and naturalized Americans is due, to an enormous degree, to a parallel gap in voter registration rates. For naturalized citizens who surmount the barrier of voter registration, turnout rates are very similar to or even higher than among registered native born citizens.  Thus, the key to increasing participation of naturalized citizens is to make voter registration more accessible.
  • Structural barriers to registration - such as restrictive requirements and lack of language access -- are a key factor in why naturalized citizens remain registered at lower rates.  Among unregistered naturalized citizens, 57 percent - nearly three in five - cite structural barriers as the reason they are not registered, compared to only 37 percent of native-born citizens. 
  • Other factors posited as explaining lower participation among immigrants include: socioeconomic factors; length of time in the United States; variations based on country of origin; location of the immigrant community; the extent of voter mobilization by political parties and candidates; language barriers; and the persistence of discriminatory practices.
Narrowing the registration gap will take action from government, political parties, and non-profits alike.  Some of the report's recommendations include:
 
  • Full implementation of a newly adopted policy ensuring new Americans are provided a voter registration application at all administrative naturalization ceremonies by the United States Citizenship and Immigrant Services (USCIS). Ultimately, USCIS should be designated as a full voter registration agency under the National Voter Registration Act.
  • Outreach by state and local elections officials in reaching out to these communities, working with USCIS to provide voter registration services at naturalization ceremonies, and providing as much material as possible in alternative languages spoken prevalently in their jurisdictions, whether required to by federal law or not.
  • More government resources for civic education and civic skill-building services, including English as a Second Language instruction.
  • Additional attention by voter mobilization groups to unregistered naturalized citizens including, if possible, in "new destination" states.
  • Elimination of administrative practices and legal requirements that discriminate against eligible immigrant voters, these include certain types of database matching policies, laws unduly restricting the means of confirming citizenship for purposes of registering to vote, and unnecessarily restrictive voter identification laws.