Image: Naturalization ceremony
Matthew Cavanaugh  /  EPA file
A group of new citizens take the citizenship oath during a naturalization ceremony at George Washington's Mount Vernon estate in Mount Vernon, Va.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 7/1/2008 8:49:51 AM ET 2008-07-01T12:49:51

Imagine a pool of eight million potential new voters in this November’s presidential election, an untapped resource waiting for presidential candidates to woo them.

And 680,000 of these prospective voters are in the swing state of Florida; another 140,000 are in what may turn out to be the new battleground state of Virginia, and 80,000 more in another emerging battleground, Colorado.

All three states went Republican in the 2000 and 2004 presidential election.

Wouldn’t John McCain or Barack Obama want to find and woo such potential voters?

These numbers are not imaginary. They are the latest Department of Homeland Security estimates of the number of legal permanent residents, also known as “green card holders.”

They’re not American citizens, but people legally eligible to become citizens, provided they pass English language, civics and history tests, and provided the federal government processes their applications in time for them to register for the Nov. 4 election.

A small subset, but big enough?
The subset of actual voters in that pool of eight million people may turn out to be small. The question is, is it still big enough to tip a few vital states from one presidential candidate to another?

One must subtract from that eight million....

  • Those legal permanent residents who choose not to apply for naturalization;
  • Those who have applied, but whose paperwork won’t be processed in time for them to register to vote;
  • Those who don’t pass the language and civics tests;
  • Those who become citizens but choose not to register to vote, or miss the registration deadline, which in many states is 30 days prior to the election;
  • And finally, those who, come Election Day, simply don’t vote.

Video: Immigration lies low in campaign — for now While it’s true that some of the biggest concentrations of such legal permanent residents are in states such as California (virtually certain to go Democratic in November), it is the concentrations in contested states such as Colorado that have the most importance for Electoral College strategy.

In Colorado, where Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama will be campaigning on Wednesday, Grace Lopez Ramirez, the campaign director of a non-profit group called Mi Familia Vota, is working to ensure that, at least among Latino legal permanent residents, a significant number become citizens, register to vote, and cast a ballot on Nov. 4.

Since 2007, Lopez Ramirez and Mi Familia Vota have helped 1,200 legal permanent residents in Colorado to apply to become naturalized citizens and about 80 percent of them have qualified.

Naturalize, then register to vote
“We register them to vote at the naturalization ceremony; Mi Familia Vota is at every single naturalization ceremony in Colorado that we can get to,” she said.

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Apart from naturalization ceremonies, how does Lopez Ramirez know where to look for eligible people?

Video: John McCain on immigration “They come to us,” she said in an interview as she attended the annual conference of the National Association of Latino Elected Officials (NALEO) last weekend in Washington.

She said they are prompted to call her group’s hotline by public service announcements on the Spanish-language television network Univision and on the three radio stations that Univision owns in Colorado.

Univision also does new citizen/new voter telethons on its 10pm television news in Colorado.

“Our citizenship workshops are one-stop shops to fill out the application,” Lopez said. “We work with a team of volunteers that are trained to fill out the application, and then they go to an immigration attorney to be reviewed. We make a copy of all the materials that have to be sent with the application including a marriage certificate, etc. We have a passport photographer who takes their picture and we give out information about how to fill out the money order properly.”

Video: Barack Obama on immigration

Mi Familia Vota also directs would-be citizens to English and citizenship classes offered at no cost or nominal cost.

Reassuring the skittish
She said the group tries to reassure skittish applicants. “We just encourage them to come to the workshop. We say, ‘You don’t speak English yet? Don’t worry about it; you have six months to learn. You don’t feel that you can pass the test right now? Don’t worry. We can plug you into workshops that are free.’”

Latinos account for one-fifth of Colorado’s population, but only eight percent of the electorate in the 2004 election. Of course, that’s partly because some of the Latino population is under age 18.

According to exit poll interviews in 2004, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry won nearly 70 percent of Colorado’s Latino voters – which explains why Democrats would profit from an increase in the number of Latino voters in the state. Kerry ended up losing Colorado to President Bush by five percentage points.

Colorado “was the logical place to be, where we can get the most bang for our buck,” said Lopez Ramirez.

All this effort does cost money, and Mi Familia Vota is funded in large part by labor unions, including the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), a powerful force within the Democratic Party.

SEIU has given more than $23 million to Democratic causes and candidates since 2003. SEIU endorsed Obama in February.

Once the newly naturalized citizen voters have registered to vote and gotten to the polling place on Election Day, they may still have problems.

The 90-year old poll worker
“There must be a rule in our county that to be a poll worker, you must be at least 90 years old,” joked NALEO member Gilbert Ynigues, a former municipal official from heavily Republican Tulare County, California. “Maybe they have a hard time hearing, or understanding, and it becomes a problem. Half the time they can’t spell your name so they say, ‘you’re not registered here,’” he said.

“Especially first-time voters, if they’re intimidated in any way, like asking them their name three times, or telling them ‘I can’t find your name,’ they walk out.”

Latinos comprise 56 percent of Tulare County’s population, according to the Census Bureau. Nearly one quarter of the county’s population is foreign born, but more than 70 percent of them have not become citizens.

Election A to ZLopez Ramirez said using an absentee ballot is a solution for immigrant voters who aren’t comfortable casting a ballot in person at the polling place.

“A lot of folks don’t understand how to vote here (in the United States),” she said. “We’ve heard, ‘We don’t really know how to work the voting machines, but we don’t want to ask anybody.’ Or ‘we feel pressured after getting in line, there are a lot of people behind us. Once we get into the voting booth we don’t want to take too much time to really read through the ballot.’ Colorado has a history of having the longest ballots in the country.”

By being able to read the ballot at home three weeks before the election, a voter can study it carefully.

Voters needing help reading Spanish
In Yakima County in eastern Washington state, bilingual county employee Soraya Gonzalez tries to help some of the newly naturalized Spanish-speaking voters who can’t proficiently read English or Spanish.

“They can’t even read the Spanish ballot,” she said.

For such voters, even a ballot initiative translated into Spanish may be an enigma.

Gonzalez said some new immigrant voters look to her for guidance on whether to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ — and she, as a county employee, cannot provide such voter counseling.

Such newly naturalized voters may learn just enough English to pass the language test for citizenship, but that may not be sufficient for them to make sense of a ballot initiative.

And the law exempts legal permanent residents over age 50 from taking the language proficiency test, if they’ve lived in the United States for 20 years or more.

On the Nov. 5 ballot in Washington state are likely to be at least two fairly complex initiatives, one giving terminally ill patients the right to kill themselves, the other opening high-occupancy vehicle lanes to all traffic during non-rush hours.

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