While this year has seen record turnouts in primary voting and unprecedented participation by youth voters, all good news, it is still important to keep in mind that national elections can drown out the significance of local, state, and municipal politics.
For recently immigrated and recently nationalised communities in the metropolitan centres of this country, participation in local politics has more to do with achieving upward mobility and security than national campaigns. The South Asian community of New York City provides a compelling case for what a widespread and organised effort to register and mobilise voters could look like.
The scope and potential of the South Asian population's contribution to the governance of New York is best emphasised by its size. According to the Census Bureau and the Asian American Federation of New York, the population of Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis totalled 268,807 individuals in 2000.
This constitutes just more than three percent of the total New York City population of about 8,000,000. This figure breaks down to 206,228 Indians, 34,310 Pakistanis, and 28,269 Bangladeshis.
According to figures from the Queens College Department of Sociology, located in the borough that boasts of the most populous and dense concentration of South Asians in the country, one out of every two South Asians over 18 is eligible to vote. However, the voter participation rate of South Asians has historically been rather low in comparison, with specific numbers still being calculated.
A number of factors are likely to be responsible for this muted participation, including low levels of English fluency coupled with the unavailability of voter information in native languages, a lack of voter outreach by political candidates and parties in immigrant communities, and the absence of community-based organisations committed to political and civic engagement.
Lower voter turnout is unfortunate, because participation in local politics presents immigrant communities with the opportunity to transform themselves into constituent communities.
The business, immigration, security, and education interests of immigrant communities are often neglected. Recognition of these interests is only possible through organised political participation that can hold elected officials accountable to the community.
Elected officials create policy and base decisions largely on the considerations of their constituents -- specifically, the ones who vote and continue to engage with them. Low voter turnout translates into inadequate representation of the needs of these communities by elected officials.
A constituent community can also represent the interests of members lacking citizenship and even those lacking immigration status at all. If the citizen members take up progressive immigration causes on behalf of the non-voters, the community can influence elected officials to advocate for immigrant-friendly policies.
A recent example of this strategy in action is the successful passage of Executive Order 41 in New York City. The Latino community, with the support of many other immigrant neighbourhoods in the city, rallied around the proposal and pushed it through City Hall with concerted force.
As a result, New York City has a 'Don't ask, don't tell' policy towards immigration status that city employees and law enforcement must follow in doing their jobs. This initiative has allowed immigrants to utilise social services and maintain a livelihood without fear of prosecution or deportation, thereby adding to the overall security of the community.
The potential to contribute to legislative innovation similar to Executive Order 41 is substantial. An organised voting bloc in the city could have significant effect on issues such as bilingual education, South Asian language assistance in government services, racial profiling, hate crimes and racially motivated harassment, business opportunities with the state and city, and distribution of public resources.
The South Asian community already has a vibrant activist and public interest community that can be called on to help refine the policy goals around these issues, and to implement effective strategies to help solve them. In cooperation with a large voting bloc, these activists would become empowered advocates and the community members most in need would be served better.
South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), in its report, 'South Asians in the 2004 Election: A Preliminary Analysis of Trends, Patterns, and Attitudes,' made an appeal for community leaders to strengthen, expand, and support voter registration and mobilising efforts. Unfortunately, a consistent and widespread attempt to register and sustain participation on the local level has not occurred.
Believing in the importance of this potential, a team of us has started 'Desis Vote', a project under SEVA Immigrant Communities Advocacy Project. Desis Vote is focused on registering and mobilising as many South Asian voters in New York City as possible. At the moment, there is a unique opportunity to tap into the social momentum and hype created by the 2008 presidential election, as seen through the Democratic primaries, in order to create a South Asian American political voice.
South Asians who are registered to vote could empower the entire community by flocking to polling stations in all upcoming elections, and show the importance of the South Asian ballot in the contest.
We plan to draw voters from the dense South Asian centres of Brooklyn and Queens. The dense concentrations and high numbers of South Asians in these boroughs is an untapped political force that has the ability to make their local elected officials more accountable to them.
I want to reiterate that one out of two South Asians in Queens over 18 is eligible to vote; increased participation of these individuals will transform the South Asian community into political brokers and king-makers in several districts.
To further this effort, Desis Vote is creating a coalition of existing South Asian organisations and institutions in the New York area to coordinate a substantial registration drive. Numerous religious, cultural, and other public interest organisations in the New York area have the capacity to hold voter registration drives and workshops throughout the year, and maintain active registration sites.
To facilitate the breadth of this effort, Desis Vote would serve as a clearinghouse of resources and support to bolster existing efforts to register voters at established organisations, as well as create new opportunities to expand the base of eligible voters through grassroots organising.
We envision a voters' movement that would be aimed towards reinvigorating the culture of civic participation and would sustain itself well after the presidential election hype. We have currently drafted several organisations to the coalition and secured seed money for outreach. We are actively fundraising in the community and more information is available on our web site: www.DesisVote.org
Each one of us has the power to make a change and should approach the organisations and religious institutions that we are a part of and ask them to join and support the Desis Vote coalition. Let them know that they have the opportunity and responsibility to empower themselves and their future generations.
The moment is ripe to transform the South Asian community into a constituent community during the 2008 election cycle and beyond. The current climate of political participation in America provides the ideal momentum to launch such a campaign. It is time to find out whether the South Asian community is ready to join the electorate.>
Ali Najmi is the co-founder of Desis Vote, and is currently in his second year at City University of New York School of Law, and holds a BA in History from Oberlin College. He can be contacted at email@example.com