Delay on citizenship may stop votes
Efforts to bring the immigrant citizens of the Storm Lake area to the polls have traditionally fallen on uninterested ears, but times seem to be changing fast.
"Before the caucus, we started to have Spanish-speaking people coming into the courthouse to register to vote. At the Democratic caucus there was a huge sign-up of new voters here, and some at the Republican event too. And now, after the caucus, the Spanish-speaking people have really been coming in," said Buena Vista County Commissioner of Elections Karen Strawn.
"We have no idea what is suddenly motivating them."
It is a trend she welcomes - in a county that has seen turnouts in some local elections as low as 2 percent in recent years, anything that gets the message of participatory democracy to the diverse population works for her.
Recent turnouts don't touch the 78 percent voter participation she has seen here years ago, although with changes in the accuracy of voter rolls, it can be tough to compare turnout over the years.
If the immigrant population is leaning toward any particular candidate, they aren't saying so.
"We can't really question anybody, we only know what may come up in casual conversation while they are filling out the registration form," Strawn said.
Barack Obama's campaign has gone to extraordinary measures to push young people who will be able to vote for the first time to get registered, Strawn said, be she isn't sure if he is also making an impact on immigrants.
The dream of voting in the upcoming presidential race - paired with an anticipated increas in processing fees - has stirred an estimated 1.4 million legal immigrants to seek citizenship since June 1, about twice the previous rate.
The avalanche of applications has slowed the time needed to process the applications to as long as 18 months, more than double the past waiting time.
Some of the area residents who applied for citizenship thinking they would have plenty of time to be eligible to vote, now many not be allowed to.
At a recent Congressional hearing, the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services indicated plans to hire, 1,500 more workers, but officials doubt if they can make a dent in the backlog in time to approve people for voting status in November.
Strawn said it may not be all the government's responsibility. "Whose fault is it if you don't apply soon enough? And I have heard of cases in which the process may be slowed down because the individual perhaps doesn't complete something properly, or forgets to bring something that is needed in the process."
In Buena Vista County, reaching the immigrant community has always been a challenge for voting officials.
The Business and Professional Women's group had tried to connect with newcomers in a voter registration workshop, with almost no response. Caucus workshops held recently made no inroads, either.
"We did learn that we had very few registration forms from the southeast Asian residents," Strawn said. "When you think about it, it become perfectly obvious - the Vietnamese, Thai and Lao families first came here as political refugees way back under former Governor Ray. They were given legal status to stay here - so there has been very little motivation to seek citizenship."
Organizers have used Tyson and Sara Lee plant communications channels to try to encourage legal immigrants to attend events to learn how to vote, but it hasn't helped. One such event saw only two people come, neither of them Hispanic, Strawn said.
The county has taken no formal action to date to spur immigrant voting, she adds.
"One difficultly is that there are so many classifications, from green cards to temporary forms of visas - it can be difficult to determine whether an individual has the right to vote or not. There really needs to be some training statewide on this."
One woman came to the courthouse and filled out her paperwork and left, when a courthouse employee overheard her talking about her green card. One of the candidate's campaigns had called her and told her she needed to go register.
"No charges were filed against her. She had been led to believe that she was to register and vote, but having a green card does not mean you can vote - being a citizen means you can vote," Strawn said.
"My question is, why do the candidates even have non-citizens on their calling list?" Strawn says.
"We have had no evidence of votes counted from people who weren't eligible, only that they have been registered," Strawn said.
The commissioner of elections hopes for more inclusive voting in the future.
"We have never found a good way to communicate with those people who do not speak or read English very well. But their children are in government classes at the high schools, and they are learning about the opportunities of democracy, and hopefully they will choose to make their voices heard," she said.
This election, there will be immigrants playing their role in the democratic process for the first time, she is certain.
"We have seen people who have earned their citizenship rush right in here with their citizenship papers still in hand - that's how excited they are to be able to vote as Americans. I don't think those people will miss their opportunity."