Registering voters, watching Venezuela

Moderated by Rick Badie

An estimated 133 million Americans cast ballots in the U.S. presidential election. Today, a local advocate talks about her non-profit’s efforts to register and encourage more Asian-Americans to cast ballots this year. And two political activists share their experiences as observers of the Venezuelan presidential election.

Commenting is open below.

By Helen Kim Ho

Voting is often associated with duty, responsibility and obligation. Civic engagement efforts often guilt-trip people to the polls.

That’s because inspiring people to vote is hard work. Voter apathy is prevalent in our country. In the 2008 presidential elections, only 64% percent of eligible citizens voted, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. We have the lowest voter turnout among a sampling of 14 developed countries, based on a Columbia University study.

Despite our freedom and success, we’re one of the most civically depressed societies in the world. Polls show a high degree of cynicism and distrust toward government, fueled by a perception of ultra-partisanship.

As the presidential election approached, what we saw on the ground was unexpected. While setting up voter registration drives at colleges, storefronts, senior homes and churches,  large numbers of people approached us eager to vote. This was especially true of the 500-plus newly naturalized citizens we helped after their swearing-in ceremonies. These new Americans have to wait years, pay $680 in fees and pass a rigorous examination to become citizens. They were excited to hear they could register in time to vote for the presidency.

While registering Georgia Tech students, intern Peter Yang was surprised by the amount of thanks he received from passers-by who were already registered. Other student groups at nearby tables even pitched in to help.

A group that has been gaining notice in national media for its growing political interest and power is the Asian-American community. Thirty-six Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders ran for Congress this year, more than double the number from a record set two years ago. Asian-Americans equaled whites for the highest rate of donations to political campaigns in the 2008 election. Asian-Americans are swing votes in battleground states Virginia and Florida.

Asian-Americans are getting more politically engaged as we live longer in the U.S.  For Georgians to equate all things immigrant with Latinos or foreigners loses out on a powerful voting bloc and misses an undeniable growth trend.

Still, Asian-Americans have the lowest percentage voter turnout of any group in our state. Lack of engagement is due to a myriad of factors, but mostly from voter apathy. Our Vote For Our Future Campaign sought to inspire new voters by connecting voting with togetherness, fun and excitement for a future in which we all share ownership. We enlisted the help of five community partners to help with awareness-raising and deeper outreach to key Asian ethnic groups. We organized voter registration “blitzes” in Gwinnett County where we designed our drives more like festive events and earned media coverage for our work.

Weeks ago, we also unveiled a billboard that appealed to the familial bonds parents and relatives feel for children. The billboard, displayed on I-85 between Steve Reynolds Boulevard and Beaver Ruin Road, showed photos of children asking adults to vote for their future. On Oct. 25, we co-sponsored a DeKalb and Gwinnett candidates forum to help citizens understand the issues and get questions answered.

One Asian-American gentleman explained to us that voting is a gift he received when he became a citizen. He had no plans to squander it. A gift by its nature is unexpected, not earned. After years of running into people who see voting as a burden or useless exercise, I was moved to tears to hear this truth.

Helen Kim Ho is executive director of the Asian-American Legal Advocacy Center of Georgia.

Venezuelan system can teach us a lot

By Azadeh Shahshahani and Susan Scott

As we cast our ballots in Tuesday’s elections, we were reminded of our transformative experience in Venezuela.

We spent the week leading up to the Oct. 7 Venezuelan presidential election learning about the electoral system that former President Jimmy Carter has called “the best in the world.”

We observed it in action all over the country on the day of the election day as part of a group of more than 220 international parliamentarians, election officials, academics, journalists and judges. As predicted,  Hugo Chavez was re-elected by a double-digit margin and with an unprecedented voter turnout.

In Venezuela, elections have become a national project which knows no party and constitutes a major investment.

As more elections are conducted under the National Electoral Council’s (CNE) leadership, (over 15 since 1999), the electoral system has become increasingly trusted by the populace. It has been used by unions to elect leadership and even by the opposition last February to elect its standard bearer.

Since the 1998 election of Hugo Chavez and the adoption of the constitution, voter registration has climbed from 11 million in 1998 to almost 19 million today, the result of a robust registration program that throughout the country, targets the poorest communities. All but 3.5 percent of eligible voters have registered, and the number of polling places has increased from 20,202 in 1998 to 38, 239 in 2012.

The technology used to record, verify and transmit the votes provides for accessible electronic voting with a verifiable paper trail and instant transmission of vote counts from remote locations to CNE headquarters.  CNE’s anti-hacking and multiple transparent audit and identity authentication systems have put to rest past opposition claims of fraud.

At each of the polling stations we visited, there were observers present representing both major political camps. They expressed satisfaction with the integrity and transparency of the process regardless of their political affiliation. We, along with observers from both sides, witnessed the Citizens’ Verification Audits after the polls closed, when the paper ballots were compared with electronic results.

We were present at the CNE headquarters in Caracas for the announcement of election results within a few hours of the closing of the more than 38,000 polling stations. And we watched as Henrique Capriles, the opposition candidate for president, conceded on television within the next hour.

What struck us most was the trust of the Venezuelan people in the integrity of the electoral system and Venezuela’s commitment to getting more people to vote. We have much to learn from Venezuela to arrive at a truly transparent system invested in democracy, rather than disenfranchisement of our citizens.

Azadeh Shahshahani is president of the National Lawyers Guild. Susan Scott is past co-chair of the National Lawyers Guild International Committee.

3 comments Add your comment

Garry

November 9th, 2012
6:27 am

Having worked in Venezuela myself, I can confirm the opinion of the authors. The degree of political participation by Venezuelans is impressive, and not only in elections but in decision making daily on issues that impact their lives, particularly at the local level. It is this sense of empowerment that has many Venezuelans believing for the first time that they actually have a meaningful voice in the major decisions that impact their lives. This is the reason why voter turnout in Venezuela was 81 percent (a figure we can only dream about in the United States). As for the comment that more and more Venezuelans have fallen into poverty, well that is a ludicrous claim. According to the UN, under Chavez, poverty has plummeted from 55 percent to 27 percent. Just one more reason for many Venezulans to vote. Don’t believe everything you see in the US media about Venezuela, it is about as accurate as the media’s claims that Saddam had WMDs prior to the invasion of Iraq.

SKG

November 8th, 2012
3:49 pm

Venezuela has much to teach the United States of America. It elected a leader who systematically began to annihilate its economy. He pitted its citizens against one another – poor and uneducated against educated and wealthy. As the system began to collapse, more and more Venezuelans fell into poverty and became dependent upon government assistance. With no way to improve their lives, they continue to vote for the hand that feeds them. Keep the majority of citizens dependent and you hold all the power. Yes America, if we don’t learn from Venezuela, we are in danger of becoming Venezuela.

SAWB

November 8th, 2012
12:13 pm

As a person who has voted in basically every election including primaries and runoffs since I became eligible it is difficult to understand why some don’t vote. Maybe it is distrust in government, but I think it is just plain laziness. Many folks are more concerned about American Idol than American Ideals. Now, I am not so sure what a group of people who elects that despot Hugo Chavez can teach us about anything.