Coalition Aims To Get New Mainers To The Polls

Oct 11, 2018

The bipartisan research organization, New American Economy, reports that just over half the immigrants in Maine who are naturalized citizens and eligible to vote are actually registered do so. That report helped spur some immigrant advocacy groups to launch a six-day get-out-the-vote effort Wednesday, aimed at engaging this population.

If you ask Roberto Rodriguez what it was like to vote for the first time after coming to the United States, his joy makes it feel like you’re back with him, standing in line, waiting to cast your vote.

“It was exciting, and I remember calling all my friends," he says. "I remember being in line and calling all my friends and being like, 'Yo! Where you at!' "

Rodriguez is from Puerto Rico, where residents aren’t allowed to vote in U.S. federal elections. Now he lives in Portland and serves as a school board member.

But, despite his enthusiasm, Rodriguez says there are still a lot of reasons immigrants don’t turn out to vote. For example, he says a lot of the time they don’t feel included by the rhetoric and personal attacks launched by politicians.

“It’s very distracting for the average voter," Rodriguez says. "I think it creates a culture of mistrust. And that’s really what I feel keeps people from voting. They don’t want to be a part of a system they don’t think is genuine, they don’t think is sincere.”

Rodriguez is part of coalition launching a six-day voter drive to register immigrant voters and help engage them in the political process. The “Your Vote Matters” campaign is an immigrant-led initiative organized by the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center.

Credit The Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center

The group will knock on doors and set up tables in different communities, including Kennedy Park in Lewiston and Steeple Square in Westbrook, from 2:30 to 6:30 every day through Monday, Oct. 15. 

Damas Rugaba co-founded the Immigrant Welcome Center and is overseeing the campaign. He says the goal is to register as many immigrant voters as possible by Oct. 16. He says there are barriers that can dissuade immigrants from voting; they could be from countries where voting was coerced by ruling governments, or they could just be unfamiliar with the voting process.

Rugaba also agrees with Rodriguez that some voters aren’t wooed by combative political rhetoric, especially language targeting immigrants. 

“Nobody came to this country to take advantage of anything," he says. "We came here because we wanted to rebuild our lives. We wanted to have a fresh start."

Mufalo Chitam, the executive director of Maine Immigrant Rights Coalition, spoke to the issues facing immigrant communities.

“Our voices need to be heard," Chitam says. "So if we don’t vote, we’ll continuously have policies that undermine our well-being in the United States.”

Chitam says she voted for the first time after being naturalized in 2003, and that voting reminds her of why she came to the United States in the first place. She says that holding that ballot, knowing that she could vote, said something about her place in her adopted home.

“You know, I felt seen," she says. "So I think holding that paper made me feel seen because I was a citizen and had a right to vote.”

Rugaba, who is organizing the voter registration drive, says he hopes to translate that feeling into direct political action.

“If we all show up to vote, we can put whoever we want in the Blaine House, or whoever as state representative.”

Orignally published Oct. 10, 2018 at 5:16 p.m. ET.