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California Counts: Mobilizing The State’s Refugee Voters

Voter turnout in San Diego's refugee community is low, but those refugees who do vote never miss an election. Now a nonprofit is working to get out the vote among refugees — betting they'll become super voters.

People up and down the state are trying to crack the code on California's dismal voter turnout, which reached a record low for general elections in 2014. Just 42.2 percent of registered voters cast ballots.

Under a new law, the Department of Motor Vehicles is getting ready to register drivers automatically to vote, and there's talk of sending mail-in ballots to every registered voter.

Special Feature California Counts

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.

But a San Diego nonprofit, the Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans, sees untapped potential in one voting bloc: refugees. The group noticed that refugees who do vote, tend to never miss an election. They’re super voters.

How big is the opportunity? California has resettled about 300,000 refugees since the 1980s.

Ramla Sahid is PANA's executive director and a U.S.-born daughter of Somali refugees.

"We grow, we have children, children get married, they have more children, so I think former refugees and new refugees are sort of an under-engaged, overlooked, potentially huge voter base that could, I think, impact the way we do things," she said.

Sahid is working this election year to replicate on a larger scale what's happening in Mariam Ali's home. Ali lives in San Diego's Teralta neighborhood, where just 27 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the 2014 general election.

From war to ballot box

On a recent afternoon, Ali was cooking pasta for her children.

"My kids they love this stuff," she said. "'Mommy, make the alfredo sauce!'"

It's the store-bought kind but spiked with curry and ground African peppers.

Twenty-five years ago, Ali was begging nomadic tribes for a pot to boil what little food she had. She and her family had fled civil war in Somalia and were walking to a refugee camp about 200 miles from their home.

"They took my house, they took my money, they took my belongings and I escaped with nothing," Ali said. Rebels were seizing towns amid the fighting between Somalia's Hawiye and Darod clans, the latter of which Ali's family and ousted Somali President Mohamed Siad Barre were members.

Photo by Brian Myers / Media Arts Center San Diego

Mariam Ali, a Somali refugee, talks in her San Diego living room about why it's important to her to vote in every election, Feb. 26, 2016.

Ali went from seeing a government toppled in Somalia to living for years in a Kenyan refugee camp with no civic structure — just United Nations workers keeping things running.

Today, in the United States, Ali is a super voter. That means she's voted in every election since becoming a U.S. citizen in 2003. Her first vote for president went to Democrat John Kerry, who lost to Republican incumbent George W. Bush.

"I was like, 'Oh, my god.' We went to the county office and I didn't know what to do," Ali said, recalling that first vote.

Ali has since encouraged her three older sons to vote. She said they fill out their mail-in ballots as a family.

A small but mighty voting bloc

Most refugee families are not like Ali's.

Statewide, about 32 percent of foreign-born residents vote, compared to 46 percent of those born in the U.S., according to data from the U.S. Census and Political Data Inc., a company that analyzes voter information for campaigns and others. Turnout among refugees is hard to pinpoint — foreign-born also includes people who voluntarily left home, immigrants who are living in the country illegally and cannot vote, and legal residents who aren't yet citizens.

But a survey by PANA of 953 East Africans in San Diego shows 30 percent of those registered are super voters, or voted in at least eight of the past 10 elections. That's compared to 20 percent of the state's voting population, according to data from the U.S. Census and Political Data Inc.

California Super Voter Demographics

Democrat: 45 percent

Republican: 40 percent

African-American: 3 percent

Asian: 7 percent

Latino: 10 percent

Age 65 or older: 58 percent

Earns $100,000 or more: 37 percent

Homeowner: 78 percent

Source: Political Data Inc.

California Counts: Mobilizing The State’s Refugee Voters


Megan Burks, City Heights reporter, KPBS


Of the refugees surveyed, 75 percent are also active voters, meaning they don't only show up for presidential elections like a lot of U.S.-born voters.

It's unclear whether this phenomenon is seen elsewhere in the state. According to Political Data Inc., 13 percent of California's foreign-born voters are super voters. The data doesn't account for refugees alone.

But Sahid said it would make sense to see staunch refugee voters throughout the state.

"I think when you're kicked out of your home, you're persecuted, you've fled wars, and you have to start over and rebuild your entire life, it means something more when you can actually engage in decision-making," Sahid said.

Ali said she votes because she wants her community's needs addressed.

"It's very important to vote because my voice will be heard," Ali said. "If I need something and I don't vote, who knows me? Who knows my needs? No one."

Ali cares a lot about empowering women — her father pushed her into an abusive marriage at age 14. She said her vote in this year's presidential race is going to Democrat Hillary Clinton.

"I am very excited," Ali said. "Women can do what the men do, too."

Ali said she also cares about rising college tuition and racial inequality. She said she's surprised those issues don't draw more U.S.-born voters to the polls.

"I want my community members to vote and come out of the shell that they (are) hiding in," Ali said.

Casting doubt on 'every vote counts'

Photo caption:

Photo by Brian Myers / Media Arts Center San Diego

Noreen H. Green works for a San Diego nonprofit that promotes voting and social justice issues. She is standing across from a Buddhist nunnery in San Diego, March 1, 2016.

Noreen H. Green lives down the street from Ali. She said racial inequality is exactly why she hasn't voted since the 1990s.

"I talk to refugees and they think this is the greatest country on Earth," Green said. "I see it from a different perspective because I'm a black American and my ancestors were brought here as slaves and worked 400 years for free, and that's how a lot of the wealth of this country was built. So I see it from that lens."

Green comes from a family of super voters. In fact, the last time she went to the polls was in 2014 to drop off a ballot for her mother, who had a stroke that year and was paralyzed.

"It was that important to her," she said.

Green's husband is also a super voter. But not Green. She said casting a ballot would mean supporting a system she considers unjust.

"From young black men and women being killed — and there really have been no consequences for that — to the fact that you have to have millions, sometimes billions, to run for president. And our county Board of Supervisors sat on a huge reserve during the recession." Green said. "I don't vote because I don't believe anyone deserves my vote."

That includes whichever candidate squares off with Republican Donald Trump if he wins the nomination.

"That's another thing. It's like watching a circus," Green said, referring to this year’s GOP presidential campaign.

Ironically, Green is interning with a nonprofit that works to get out the vote during election years. The San Diego Organizing Project also organizes the community around social justice issues.

Green said for her to vote, the system would have to look a lot different. And she said it will be those she organizes — the Black Lives Matter protesters, immigrant DREAMers and refugees like Ali — who will shape it.

"I think it's important to empower people and create this mass of people that can make change," Green said. "Because it's going to take a mass movement."

PANA believes refugees are that mass to push for change — at the ballot box. San Diego has resettled an estimated 100,000 refugees since 1975. To PANA, that's 100,000 potential super voters.

Photo caption:

Photo by Susana Tsutsumi

A graphic shows demographics for San Diego's Teralta neighborhoods in the City Heights area.

Copyright 2016 KPBS. To see more election coverage, visit

CORRECTION: Original version of this story said DMV is already registering drivers automatically to vote. That's not happening yet. The story has been updated.

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


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