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In Low Voting San Diego Neighborhood, Refugee Groups Want 100% Turnout

Paw Say calls Karen refugees to remind them to register to vote, May 12, 2016.
Kris Arciaga
Paw Say calls Karen refugees to remind them to register to vote, May 12, 2016.

In Low Voting San Diego Neighborhood, Refugee Groups Want 100% Turnout
The City Heights neighborhood has historically had the lowest voter turnout in San Diego, but some refugees are bucking that trend.
In Low Voting San Diego Neighborhood, Refugee Groups Want 100% Turnout
In Low Voting San Diego Neighborhood, Refugee Groups Want 100% Turnout

Joining me now is KPBS Claire Trageser. Welcome. ________________________________________ Thank you. ________________________________________ You been following this neighborhood for several months. Can you start by giving us some background on city Heights. Why is voter -- what is the voter turnout and why is it so low? ________________________________________ The neighborhood has had 27% voter turnout in the 2014 general election and some of its precincts with the lowest turnout in the city. It is made out of groups that traditionally have lower turnout, such as lower income groups. 47% of its residents are foreign born, 6% are white. Not everyone is a citizen or new citizens, the population is also a bit younger than the rest of the city. We have talked to residents to say I am just trying to get I, so voting is in my top priority. ________________________________________ Did candidates pay attention to this neighborhood? ________________________________________ Historically, no. We have done stories where we compared city Heights with the wealthier neighborhood less than a mile away. It has one of the highest voter turnouts in the city. They share a city Council district. I did a story last month, where candidates said they were pressured to only can -- campaigning Kensington because they know people there will come out to vote and ignore city Heights. My reporting partner in the series also did a story where there's a conversation between the two residents, Kensington Heights resident said she hadn't gotten anyone in the campaigns or calling her are knocking on her door. ________________________________________ With this election be different than that? ________________________________________ There is a possibility. There is the race between the Democratic presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. That can bring people to the polls. The city is also voting on minimum wage. Some of the city Heights voters we talked to say they are to be casting ballots specifically so they can vote for the wage increase. All of the Council candidates are Latino. They are say they are making sure they are putting more effort into reaching out to the city Heights neighborhood. ________________________________________ They are actually knocking on some of those doors. ________________________________________ That's what they say. ________________________________________ You found some groups that are going against the low voter turnout trend. Tell us about them. ________________________________________ There are lots of refugees who live in city Heights. That is often where they are placed. Refugees can become citizens after five years and start to vote. Some of the groups have organized specifically to reach out to refugees such as Somali refugees or Miramar, formally known as Burma, does communities are working to make sure that everyone who is eligible to vote yes ballots this June. ________________________________________ Why are groups hoping to reach out to these voters in particular? ________________________________________ They found that refugees who start voting become supervisors who never miss an election. They found that 75% of the refugees in San Diego show up for all elections not just presidential ones. They are new to the US and generally glad to be leaving whatever country they are coming through -- from, maybe more naturally will adopt of the countries political system. Paw Say said she couldn't have her voice heard before and she's excited now to have that opportunity . ________________________________________ How would you characterize the excitement or enthusiasm level about this election in city Heights? ________________________________________ Also as you heard, I went to a been the means church -- Vietnamese church and they were all excited. They brought their ballots to church. Everyone held up their ballots in the air, then they all kind of work together filling in their ballots. They weren't telling each other who devote for, but everyone filling them in and people ask -- answering questions. The pastor was there making sure people were registering to vote. Some people were having trouble with that. It seems like people are very excited about the selection. ________________________________________ You have been covering Kensington in city Heights for several months now as part of our California Council election coverage. What's next? ________________________________________ We're going to continue to follow our voters in Kensington and city Heights through the election in November. We are also going to have a new feature in the coming months about a San Diego and who doesn't vote. We will explore why that person doesn't vote and what it would take to get that person the vote. And then our partners are going to be doing the same thing with voters in their areas. ________________________________________ I have been speaking with clairetrageser. You can find more about our election coverage@KPBS.org. Thanks Claire. ________________________________________ Thank you.

The City Heights neighborhood has historically had the lowest voter turnout in San Diego, but some refugees are bucking that trend by pushing for all of the eligible voters in their communities to cast ballots.

Most of the refugees who resettle in San Diego live in City Heights. There are Vietnamese, Somali, Iraqi and Burmese communities in the neighborhood, where 47 percent of the residents are foreign born and just 6 percent are white.

California Counts is a collaboration of KPBS, KPCC, KQED and Capital Public Radio to report on the 2016 election. The coverage focuses on major issues and solicits diverse voices on what's important to the future of California.

San Diego nonprofits such as the Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans and the Environmental Health Coalition have been holding events and voter turnout drives this campaign season specifically geared toward refugees. Some San Diego City Council candidates also have staff members focused on reaching specific refugee communities.

The Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans has found that once refugees begin voting, they become “supervoters,” and rarely miss an election. The group’s survey of refugees in San Diego showed 75 percent show up for all elections, not just presidential ones. Though statewide data on refugee voter turnout doesn’t exist, the voter analysis firm Political Data Inc. estimates 13 percent of California's foreign-born voters are supervoters.

For some refugees, California’s June 7 primary will be the first time voting in their lives.

Paw Say, 21, moved to the United States seven years ago from a refugee camp on the Thailand-Myanmar border. She’s now a U.S. citizen with the right to vote.

“In Burma, back then, there’s no voting and no opportunity to have your voice heard,” she said, calling Myanmar by its former name, Burma. “We can finally have the voice to speak up and have the freedom to speak our mind because in Burma there’s no such thing.”

Paw Say talks with her grandmother in their City Heights apartment, May 27, 2016.
Nicholas McVicker
Paw Say talks with her grandmother in their City Heights apartment, May 27, 2016.

Paw Say is studying early childhood development at San Diego State University and lives in a two-bedroom City Heights apartment with her grandmother, brother and sister. Her parents died before she moved to the U.S.

With her finals over, Paw Say spent a recent Friday morning with her grandmother. Family portraits shot in a mall photo studio hang on the wall next to the flag of Karen State, a territory that has been in a civil war with Myanmar since 1948. More than 100,000 Karen people, including Paw Say’s family, fled that conflict to Thai refugee camps, where they had hoped to then be resettled.

The U.S. doesn’t keep track specifically of Karen refugees, instead grouping them with Burmese. In recent years, the U.S. has accepted more Burmese refugees than refugees from any other country — almost 150,000 since 2006. San Diego has about 1,700 Karen refugees and California about 4,400.

As a new voting American, Paw Say falls in the undecided camp when it comes to the Democratic presidential primary. She favors Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton but hasn’t made up her mind. But she’s ready for her first voting experience, and has been working to ensure all of the eligible Karen refugees in San Diego show up to the polls by helping them register and understand their ballots.

“It’s their time to shine,” she said. “In the refugee camp, they don’t really have a voice, and in Burma they don’t really have a voice. But now they have the freedom to speak up for the country and their community and their family.”

California is home to more than 825,000 refugees. They can become U.S. citizens after five years and begin to vote.

On a recent Sunday at the San Diego Living Water Church in City Heights, another group was getting ready to fill in ballots. The church’s congregation is mostly Vietnamese. Some came to the U.S. as refugees after the Vietnam War ended in 1975.

When the church service wrapped up, congregants gathered in a back room for watermelon and sticky rice — and also to vote.

An organizer asked everyone who’d brought a ballot to hold it up, and immediately the room was filled with waving pieces of paper.

Members of the San Diego Living Water Church in City Heights hold up their ballots, May 22, 2016.
Claire Trageser
Members of the San Diego Living Water Church in City Heights hold up their ballots, May 22, 2016.

Most of the ballots were in Vietnamese, and people helped each other understand how to fill them in. The church’s pastor also brought his laptop and registered people to vote.

Sophie Tran, 81, said she’s been calling her community members, reminding them to vote this year. She tells them it’s their responsibility.

Speak City Heights is a media collaborative aimed at amplifying the voices of residents in one of San Diego’s most diverse neighborhoods. (Read more)

“If we have a big voice together with the community and we vote for somebody we trust, then our voice will be heard,” Tran said. “Because if not, then it cannot be heard. If you don’t vote, nobody hears you.”

Tran has been in the U.S. for 41 years after arriving as a refugee when the Vietnam War ended. She also now works on voter outreach with new refugee groups, like the Karen from Myanmar. She tells them voting is part of being an American.

“We have to cooperate with the people that claimed us and welcomed us to this country. And we have to show our respect to them, our responsibility to them,” she said.

In Low Voting San Diego Neighborhood, Refugee Groups Want 100% Turnout

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