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This Program Is Helping Non-Citizens Have a Say at the Ballot Box

The Vote Allies initiative helps undocumented immigrants learn about American elections — while possibly even giving them a voice.

By Adia White


(Photo: Theresa Thompson/Flickr)

Harberth Godinez is a voting-rights advocate who spends his time on campaigns in Los Angeles, counseling mayors, district school board supervisors, and candidates for city council. He has also worked with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People on voter education programs. When I ask him how many voters he’s personally registered, I expect a ballpark estimate; instead, he remembers every one.

“I’ve registered 70,” Godinez says. “They all voted, I checked.” Godinez thinks of voting as a sacred duty: “There are so many things we need to change, and I want to help people understand why it’s important to vote.”

The weird part is that Godinez himself has never voted. He can’t.

His family migrated from Guatemala to Los Angeles when he was 14. Before President Barack Obama signed the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals—it allows those who crossed the border illegally as children to obtain renewable work visas — Godinez lived here illegally.

We tend to see voting laws as inflexible, but they’re changing all the time.

There are nearly 30 million people of voting age living in the United States who can’t vote. Nearly six million citizens are barred due to felony disenfranchisement laws. There are also around 12 million green card holders and 11 million undocumented immigrants who are likewise unable to register. To some people, that looks like an intractable problem. We tend to see voting laws as inflexible, but they’re changing all the time.

Many non-citizens could vote before African Americans or women. In the 1900s, nearly half the states in America allowed non-citizen voting, but World War I changed the political atmosphere as worker unions began aggressive recruitment among immigrants who consequently were assumed to have radical political ideas. Soon after the war, thanks to fear of these supposed radical ideas, citizenship unanimously became a requirement to vote.

Felony disenfranchisement laws are perpetually in flux as well. Since 2000, 17 states have changed their laws pertaining to felony voting. In Maine and Vermont, the incarcerated can cast a vote for president from their jail cells. In 10 other U.S. states, on the other hand, felons can lose the right permanently, even after finishing parole. Felony disenfranchisement disproportionately affects African Americans, with one in 13 losing the right to vote.

Thirty-two-year-old Brett Shears thinks we need to re-examine voting rights for these traditionally disenfranchised groups. Last year he piloted a program called Vote Allies which aims to pair willing voters with those who don’t have a voice.*

Shears and I talked about Vote Allies while sitting in Echo Park, just a few blocks from downtown Los Angeles. It makes sense that a program like Vote Allies would start here. A study out of the University of Southern California says that one in 10 residents in this city are undocumented. “We see a very dark line between who can vote and who can’t, and that’s not right.” Shears says. “There should be accurate representation of the people that make up the community.”

Under the Vote Allies program, the pairs meet, research candidate platforms together, and then sit down to discuss and decide who to elect. The first voters cast their ballots together in the California primary this year. The program has now enrolled around 70 members across the country. Most pairs are strangers, but a few signed up together. Godinez and his girlfriend Raquel were some of the first to enroll.

Raquel had never voted before and says she was skeptical about the ability of voting to change things. Godinez saw Shears’ program as an opportunity to encourage his girlfriend to register. When it came time to make their decision, the two agreed on every candidate but one — a local judge. After some deliberation, they went with Raquel’s choice. “It is her vote,” Godinez says. “But we both voiced our opinions, and it was great to know that we could share that.”

For some, sharing can just mean listening to someone else’s opinion. For others, it can mean an even more significant commitment.

During the June 7th California primary,Shears shared his vote with 29-year-old Francisco Medina. Medina made national news last August when he became the first undocumented immigrant appointed to a city advisory board. When it came time to vote this year, the two pored over a vote-by-mail ballot together. Shears went beyond sharing his ballot and elected all of Medina’s choices: “I didn’t want him to know who I would’ve voted for,” Shears says. “I wanted him to have the experience of voting himself.”

“I wish I could share some of my other blessings as well. I’m just glad that I thought of a vote as something that I could share.”

Shears says that he was raised to share his assets and sees the vote as no different. “I’m willing to share it exactly because I value it so much,” he says. “I wish I could share some of my other blessings as well. I’m just glad that I thought of a vote as something that I could share.”

To opponents of Vote Allies, Shears can seem like he’s out of his mind: At a time when most discourse around undocumented immigrants addresses whether or not we should build a massive border wall, seeking a path to citizenship or even deferred action seems a more appropriate goal than universal enfranchisement. But you don’t have to believe that illegal immigrants, felons, or even legal non-citizens should be able to vote to be a supporter of Vote Allies: The program also stands for increasing voter turnout and raising awareness about the differences in voting laws across the states. Researchers estimate that 51 million eligible Americans are not registered to vote. Perhaps by learning about the millions who can’t cast a vote in the country, more people will recognize the significance of their own.

Vote Allies won’t change election results. After all, people who choose to share their vote with disenfranchised voters are likely to vote similarly as those they share it with. The program’s true revolution is in how it challenges our assumption that suffrage is a solid line that can’t be re-drawn every once in a while.

*Update—September 15, 2016: This post has been updated to correct Brett Shears’ age.