This piece, written as an assignment for Columbia Journalism School, was published on The Ink.nyc in October 2016.
After ten years living in Elmhurst, Kuant Kei Yee, 72, will be voting for the first time this year. But if recent history is anything to go by, many of her neighbors won’t be joining her at the polls.
In 2014, only 24 percent of Queens’ one million eligible voters participated in the midterm elections, according to the New York City Board of Elections. Elmhurst’s numbers are lower still: just 18.1 percent went to the polls. Many issues keep area voters away. They include language barriers, cultural apathy or simply not understanding the procedure.
Kei Yee, a Chinese immigrant who became a U.S. citizen in 2005, chose to register this year after being approached at the Newtown Italian Senior Center by a Chinese-speaking volunteer from local nonprofit Elmhurst United, who talked Kei Yee through the hows and whys of registering to vote. “I just feel I have a responsibility now,” Kei Yee said, speaking through a translator.
Elmhurst United hopes that more education will help other potential voters feel the same responsibility. The group, which launched in 2014 to fight the controversial conversion of the PanAm hotel into a homeless shelter, now concentrates on promoting civic engagement and community spirit.
On a recent Saturday, Elmhurst United organizer Jennifer Chu, 38, stood on Queens Boulevard wearing a green T-shirt that read “NO WAR,” while handing out registration forms at a combined e-waste initiative and voter drive. “Are you registered to vote?” she called out to passersby. Some sheepishly took a form. Others nodded and kept on walking.
Elmhurst United needs to appeal to a diverse, rapidly changing population. According to the census, 30 percent of white residents left the area between 2000 and 2010, while the Asian community swelled by 18 percent. Its 88,000 residents speak more than 15 different languages at home and originate from all over the world. Around 70 percent were born overseas. If the recent drive is anything to go by, convincing them to register to vote will prove challenging.
The many languages spoken in Elmhurst homes are a further impediment. At the Board of Elections office in Kew Gardens, registration forms are available in five languages: English, Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Bengali – but not Filipino, Hindi, Thai or any of the other languages spoken in Elmhurst.
Fiona Zhao, civic participation associate for the nonprofit MinKwon Center for Community Action, said the language barrier contributed to voter apathy. “A large part of it has to be limited English proficiency,” she said. “The forms available aren’t in the languages that they need to be.”
The Board of Elections sometimes helps with outreach events in areas with low voter enrollment like Elmhurst, especially if asked by officials or community groups. But, said Valerie Vasquez, the board’s public affairs and communications manager, they’re stretched as it is, with “pre-election tests” taking up precious resources. “Unfortunately, because we’re very short-staffed, the number of outreach events we can run is limited,” she said.
Nonprofits that target particular ethnic groups may see Elmhurst’s diversity as a deterrent and instead focus on neighborhoods with a higher concentration of a single group.
Voto Latino, for instance, launched its voter registration initiative, Hispanic Heritage Month of Action, on Sept. 15 in neighboring Corona, which is overwhelmingly Hispanic. It does not plan to host any events in Elmhurst, despite the 40,000 Hispanic residents listed as living there in the 2010 census.
Flushing, northeast of Elmhurst, is home to another initiative,Korean-American Civic Empowerment. When the group launched in 1994, said Teresa Lee, the nonprofit’s program coordinator, less than 10 percent of eligible Korean-Americans in New York were registered to vote. Eligible voters didn’t see the benefit to registering. “They thought their voices wouldn’t be heard,” she said.
After their 22-year campaign, Lee cites registration rates as around 65 percent. The group hopes to reach 80 percent by the end of 2016. But Elmhurst’s 2,200 Korean residents are not numerous enough to justify a targeted attempt from the organization, she said. Flushing, where it runs its registration drives, has more than 30 times that number.
Elmhurst does have over 18,000 residents of Chinese origin living in the area, and the nonprofit Organization of Chinese-Americans seems to be reaching out to locals. Chu, who has lived in Elmhurst all her life, recalled with pleasure a recent cold call from the group, asking if she’d registered to vote. “I guess they looked me up in the phone book and saw my last name,” she said. The organization did not respond to requests for comment.
Some older Elmhurst residents want to vote but worry they won’t make it to the polls. At the Queens Adult Care Center, a residential facility, Willie Roland, 79, isn’t sure how to register. “I can’t vote without a card, and I don’t know how to get one,” he said. “You need a card to vote. But I want to do it. I want to vote, and I want to vote for Hillary. Anything to keep Trump out.”
Tina Rodgers, 61, has lived at the center for a year since moving from the Bronx. She is registered but doesn’t know where to go to vote. “I mean, I’ll find it,” she said. The center currently has no plans to organize mass transport for the half-mile journey to the polling station, manager Michael Younger said. Residents could book themselves an Assist-A-Ride if they wanted, he added.
Younger people may get more help. Community Board 4 district manager Christian Cassagnol organized a large scale Youth Fair that was held Oct. 1. Young people who attended could talk to representatives from a range of organizations including colleges and the military. They could also get help registering to vote – and, if they met with at least four groups, they were entered into a raffle to win a Kindle. Some incentives, it seems, may be more tangible than a sense of responsibility.