By Jin Wu and Andersen Xia
Voter registration in Chicago’s Chinatown is dropping, according to the Chicago Board of Elections. Multiple community efforts encouraged Chinese immigrants to register and participate in elections.
But after weeks of early voting for Tuesday’s election, the three precincts in the 25th Ward that cover Chinatown had a slow day at the polls.
Anita Lau, Democratic election judge at the 14th Precinct in the 25th Ward, said the slow turnout was predictable. “About 45 percent of the registered voters citywide have already done early voting and it is also too cold outside,” she said.
But the challenges for voter engagement in Chinatown go beyond low turnout. As a community for immigrants, lack of citizenships is one of the key issues that made the election advocacy more difficult.
“Many times when you approached a man on the street and encouraged him to register (for voting), he would tell you he doesn’t vote because he’s not citizen,” said Paul Yee, precinct captain for the 6th precinct. “Another reason people don’t vote is they think it takes too much time.”
These two scenarios led to an interesting scene in Chinatown: most of the voters today were seniors.
“Among the 150 voters today, so far, 80 percent of them are Asian-American seniors,” said Katrina Herring, election judge at the 18th precinct in the 25th Ward. “And they don’t have any language barrier here. We have staff here who can speak Mandarin, Cantonese, and some other Asian languages.”
Fiona Feng works as a community organizer at the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community, a not-for-profit organization that encourages Chinese American citizens to vote. She said encouraging Chinatown residents to participate is a big and on-going project. A group of volunteers went out into the community, knocked on doors, and make phone calls to register new voters and remind others to go to the polls Tuesday.
“The people in Chinatown don’t see the meaning of voting. They don’t buy into the idea,” she said. “Actually the municipal election is even more relevant to voters’ lives because [the] alderman is the one who takes care of their daily needs.” If the Chinese Americans can accept this idea, they would understand that “voting can get their voices heard,” she said.
“I understand that Chinese immigrants don’t want to spend much time on this because they have their own problems such as paying the rent, finding a better job and their kids’ education,” Feng said. “However, they don’t really see that voting actually can help them on these. They just don’t get the long-term effects.”
Because most of the residents emigrated from China, where they have never voted, so they also don’t have the “mindset of voting,” she said.
This year’s number of registered voters in Chinatown decreased to 2,156, down 12 percent after steady increases in 2007 and again in 2011.
“After several years of voting, some people just gave up the idea,” Feng said. “They think politicians are so corrupted and nothing has been changed even when they voted.”
For those Chinatown residents who have picked up on the idea of voting, the language barrier still prevents some from knowing the candidates and understanding their policies, Feng said.
Yinghai Pei, cook at a Chinese restaurant in Chinatown, decided to vote in this election for the first time after living in the U.S. for 15 years. “I think Chicago is getting better and better, so I finally decided to come out and participate in voting,” he said in Mandarin. However, due to lack of understanding of the election, he had no idea who he wanted to vote for. “I’ll just follow my wife’s idea, vote whomever she votes.”