If immigrants and Latinos are so important to this upcoming presidential election, why isn’t any group trying to register and mobilize them to vote?

On Oct. 3, Latino Decisions released results of a poll of Latino voters, with fairly predictable results. Most respondents – 67 percent – rate Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton favorably, while 77 percent hold a dim view of Republican nominee Donald Trump.

But here’s a surprising statistic: Only 38 percent said that any organization has encouraged them to register or vote. That’s more than the 31 percent who said they were asked during the last presidential election, but below the typical rates for whites, which was 43 percent (based on post-2012 election survey data).

Other minority and immigrant groups have similar experiences. This year, only 30 percent of Asian Americans said that any group or party had gotten in touch to urge them to register or vote.


The nonprofit groups that work closely with immigrants keep their distance from electoral politics

Most of the nonprofit groups that work with recent immigrants offer such services as language classes, job training, housing placement and public health support. They stay away from anything election-related, even voter registration. In my new book “Immigrants and Electoral Politics,” I show that’s partly because they fear that doing anything political could jeopardize their nonprofit tax status.

I took up this research in part because very little scholarship had investigated these groups’ political activities.

Immigrants and certain ethnic minority groups historically vote at low levels, lower than white and African American citizens. In 2012, 64 percent of non-Hispanic white eligible voters, and African Americans, turned out on Election Day, compared with 48 percent of Hispanic Americans and 47 percent of Asian Americans. And these groups are the best positioned to connect immigrants to the political process. Doing so would help them further acculturate, connect with the larger society, and have their voices heard in our civic realm.

To examine these issues, I studied immigrant organizations based in six states. I included two states that were traditional immigration centers, New York and Illinois, as well as two states where recent migration patterns have put immigrants in regions not used to absorbing them at such high rates, Florida and North Carolina. Finally, I looked at two states with very different types of immigrant communities: New Jersey with its large South Asian population, and Michigan with a long history of immigration from Middle Eastern countries.

Using data from the Urban Institute’s National Center for Charitable Statistics, I surveyed more than 1,000 nonprofit organizations (nearly all designated as 501(c)(3)s by the IRS) in these states during the 2012 campaign. My goal was to find what, if anything, they were doing that was related to the election.

Most immigrant-serving groups did nothing related to the election

Sixty percent of the organizations that responded to my survey said they did nothing related to electoral politics. That is about the same as the percentage of Latino and Asian American voters who said no group contacted them to encourage them to register or vote.

The groups gave several reasons. Some feared losing their protected 501(c)(3) tax status from the IRS. Some lacked the staff time or simply believed the community was disinterested in politics.
The 40 percent of organizations that did engage in electoral politics used a variety of tactics. Some have been proven to work to register immigrant citizens and get them to vote. As you can see in the graph below, these groups reported monitoring election news (25 percent), registering voters (19 percent), mobilizing residents (14 percent) often using new databases of registered voters, and translating voter information (6.2 percent).

The factors that get these groups involved in electoral work included: regularly engaging with government, having a larger number of paid employees and serving immigrants in general rather than just a single nationality. Factors that don’t seem to matter include the size of the organization’s budget and whether that district’s election is very competitive.

New state laws discourage immigrant registration

Some immigrant groups are reluctant to try to connect their communities to electoral politics in part because of new laws about registering voters. New voter-identification laws are well-known and have been widely challenged. But here’s what’s less well-known: State policymakers have targeted organizations that register new voters, adding onerous penalties and regulations.

For instance, in 2011, Florida passed a law that imposed steep fines on any organization that submitted incorrect voter registration information. It was unclear at the time whether this meant hundreds of falsified identities or simply a misspelled name. The new law also gave groups only 48 hours to submit new voter registrations once they’d been filled out and signed – far less than the two weeks previously allowed.

In 2012, a federal judge in Florida struck down this part of the law, finding that the new rules were harsh and impractical. But the damage was done. Prominent organizations, such as the League of Women Voters and Rock the Vote, stopped registering voters in that state, while immigrant organizations in Florida were significantly less likely to register voters than similar groups in states that had not enacted such laws, controlling for other factors.

In other words, just as voter identification laws have been shown to disproportionately deter younger and minority voters, tightening rules on voter registration appears to deter nonpartisan organizations that cater to immigrant groups.

If neither our political parties nor nonpartisan groups are going to register immigrants as they once did, then immigrant communities will remain on the margins of U.S. politics.

Heath Brown is assistant professor of public policy at the City University of New York, John Jay College and the Graduate Center, and author of “Immigrants and Electoral Politics: Nonprofit Organizing in a Time of Demographic Change” (forthcoming 2016, Cornell University Press).