Virginia New Majority, based out of the Tenants and Workers United building on Mount Vernon Avenue in Arlandria, launched a youth-driven voter registration campaign Tuesday. The movement aims to register as many voters as possible, focusing on the Latin American community, but including youths and other minorities.
Associate Director of Virginia New Majority Tram Nguyen stood in front of a mural depicting a buzz of activity from people of all shades and origins, speaking of the Commonwealths untapped voters, the thousands of people who have immigrated, transplanted and were born in Virginia who remain unregistered. The organizations goal is to register 75,000 voters.
The mural seemed an apt backdrop as Nguyen said that Virginias traditional Southern values are fading because of diverse populations flocking to the area, whether it is for government jobs or high-tech jobs.
Our main focus is communities of color that for whatever reason are not civically engaged, Nguyen said.
Its led by the youth but its encouraging a lot of minority action, said Juan Collazos, 17, a Columbian-born Maryland resident who has lived in the U.S. for five years. Collazos is too young to vote in the upcoming presidential election but he is dedicated to increasing the areas voter capital. Voter registration is low, particularly for certain groups even within the majority people are voting at a very, very low rate.
The campaign is indicative of the population shift that has occurred over the last 15 years in Virginia, where the Latino population constitutes a little over six percent of the state. As of 2006, Latinos made up 13 percent of Alexandrias population, (Hispanics/Latinos make up 14.7 percent of the U.S. population) but the number has likely grown. Anti-immigration movements elsewhere in the region have likely contributed to the increase in Alexandrias Latino community as well, Nguyen said.
Immigration translates to electoral power, Nguyen said. They do make a difference; they have a voice and they should use that voice.
But for Spanish-speaking Alexandrians, a voice is harder to come by. Voter registration, ballots nor any other materials are distributed by the city in Spanish; the city is not allowed to do so because of a state mandate enforcing uniformity. Its a relic from the 2000 presidential election controversy over Floridas ballots. A threshold of five percent or 10,000 eligible non-English speaking voters that must be surpassed in the state before the board starts printing voting forms in Spanish according to Amanda Perez-Wong of Alexandrias Office of Voter Registration and Elections.
We expected after the 2000 census that we would come under federal requirements to have Spanish ballots and other voting materials, said Tom Parkins of Alexandrias Office of Voter Registration and Elections. We even started to talk to translators Weve discussed these issues and weve tried to be very proactive to meet the needs [of Latino voters] in other ways without doing anything that can get us in trouble with the Board [of Elections]. Its kind of nonsensical to me.
Parkins expects the threshold to be met after the 2010 census. Until then, some employees at the Registration and Elections office speak fluent Spanish, one of them in a principal position. Parkins said that the office assigns Spanish speakers to precincts with high Latino populations to encourage voting. The office has also given voting materials to organizations like Tenants and Workers United for them to translate and brings in a part-time Farsi speaker to meet the needs of another segment of the citys population.
Virginia New Majority is taking the political moment into their own hands by teaming up with other activist groups to hold a training session on Saturday in Washington, D.C. where youth volunteers will learn how to register minority voters.
Youths themselves asked us to do this, said Ricardo Flores, advocacy director at the Latin American Youth Center. They are concerned with getting involved in the civic process.
Like Collazos, many of the young people involved in the movement are not yet old enough to vote. District resident Adriane Chavarria, 15, joined the Latin American Youth Centers Summer Leadership Institute this summer to make a difference in her community. Youth dont really feel like were being heard, she said. And if we have a chance to, we should take advantage of it.
The bipartisan movement goes beyond the upcoming presidential election, according to Flores. The goal is to get minorities registered to vote, not to vote for a certain candidate. I cant address which campaign is most excited, he said. But I hope both are.