Why Not? A Story from the Front Lines of Voter Registration

By Carmen Barroso She was sitting on her porch with her nephew. She looked old, but we learned that she was in her early fifties. Standing on the sidewalk, we asked if she would like to register to vote. “No, thanks,” she answered, the same polite response we were hearing from most in this neighborhood of many unregistered voters. Inquisitive minds that we were, we asked her, “Why not?” Her answer was barely audible. Apparently embarrassed, she whispered, “I don’t know how. I never voted.” This was exactly the opportunity we were so eager for! We promptly offered help to navigate the simple registration form we had brought. She thanked us but said her problem went beyond that: she did not know who the candidates were. Again, a great chance! I started to give a simple description of the two presidential candidates. When I got to Hillary, she interrupted with a wide smile: “The woman who appeared on TV!” She seemed delighted to discover that she knew more than she thought. With that simple phrase, this woman opened my eyes wider than years of reading about inequality in the U.S. and the world. In different ways, she and many of her neighbors gave us a precious glimpse of the mood of those left behind in the current system. We were four friends who had come from out of state to help anybody interested in registering to vote in the upcoming presidential election. We arrived full of enthusiasm… and ignorance. Don’t take me wrong: we were a pretty well-educated and experienced bunch. Among ourselves we had several advanced degrees from the best universities, and decades of work experience in positions of responsibility. But our knowledge of that particular state – its politics, recent history, and social make-up – was flimsy. I was concerned that potential voters would want to debate recent political scandals I was not familiar with. Also, my internet research revealed the demographic of that area to be very young. I wondered how they would react to my white hair. These soon proved to be unfounded doubts and fears. With almost no exception, everybody was very nice… and oblivious to the intricacies of politics. The young people in charge of the registration drive received us with open arms and caloric donuts. They were excellent instructors who quickly gave just the information we needed. They warned us we would meet both Puerto Ricans and felons who did not know they have the right to vote. Most practical was the advice to ignore the list of residents they handed us because it was mostly outdated, and to approach anybody we saw on the streets. They made only one mistake: they gave us a low estimate of the number of people we would be able to register. At the end of the day, we were so proud to return more than 10 times the number of signed forms they expected! They greeted us as heroes and we felt like kids winning a star at school. Reflecting on how we beat expectations, I think there were two major factors: first, we asked questions, and second, we listened to answers. We started each conversation by asking, “Are you interested in registering to vote?” We got various responses, each of which was telling. Frequently, especially with older respondents, they answered that they were already registered. With these people, we made sure they had received their election notification and that they were registered under the correct address. Another common answer was that they could not vote. “Why?,” we asked. The majority said they were not yet citizens. “Why not?” Some had not had their green card (“residencia”) long enough to apply. But one pregnant woman resting on her porch told us her English was not good enough in spite of her many years with “residencia.” We had just had delicious tamales in a small restaurant around the corner where we saw a sign for citizenship application help. She was excited to hear about it. I would not be surprised if many of the young men who vehemently told us they did not want to vote were actually felons who thought they could not vote, but did not want to make that public. One of them told us as much. We were in a small barber shop, where barbers and customers chatted about their varied voting eligibility. A handsome young guy, quietly sitting in a corner, seemed to want to disappear into a hole in the wall. I sat by him and asked whether he wanted to register. He said he could not. When I asked why, with a shy smile he told me he was a convicted felon on parole. I remembered that felons could vote, but I was not sure about parole. In any case, he agreed to try and filled out the form with the most beautiful handwriting. I later learned his application is likely to be accepted because parolees are allowed to vote in his state. Then there were those who said they did not want to vote. Obviously, we asked why. For some, it was a lack of interest or a lack of knowledge about the candidates. Most of these ended up registering, because we reminded them that they could register now and decide later, and the opposite was not true. The hardest cases were the ones who were convinced that voting would make no difference. This was most common among young men, especially those who were in groups when we talked to them. They saw their refusal to register as a protest against “political higher-ups” who don’t care about them and do nothing for them. Clinton and Trump shouldn’t take this personally, because very few mentioned the candidates. It was a general indictment of a class of privileged people who are seen as indifferent to their plight. But we also met some stars that made our day. One man was proud of a letter from Washington D.C. complimenting him for his 50th election, including the primaries, which he had never missed. A woman who was a very active volunteer and declared herself “a Hillary crusader.” The country gains with their participation. My little voter registration band got a record number of applications in a short time. There are many people out there who can become active citizens and just need a little help. Perhaps channelling their disaffection into the electoral process may tip the balance towards policies that will make this country more equal and, ultimately, improve everybody’s lives.
Dr. Carmen Barroso is the former Regional Director of International Planned Parenthood Federation, Western Hemisphere Region (IPPF/WHR). Dr. Barroso became the first non-American to be appointed as director in the US MacArthur Foundation. She serves on several boards and international commissions, including the International AIDS Alliance, IBIS, and PAHO’s Panel on Gender and Health that she co-chairs. She is also a former board director of HIP.