By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
So you want to vote? It just got a whole lot easier with a $950,000 fund offered by King County Elections and the Seattle Foundation to sponsor voter education and registration.
The fund is available for organizations that can spread the word about the power of voting. Targeting communities that have been historically excluded, organizations can apply for grants between now and April 2 to conduct voter education.
“We are addressing the shameful history of intentionally excluding people,” said Kendall LeVan Hodson, Chief of Staff of King County Elections.
The Voter Education Fund (VEF), which supplies the grants, was started in 2016 after the King County Council changed its policy to mandate voter outreach. Voter materials in Korean and Spanish were added to voter materials; pamphlets and ballots were already translated into Chinese and Vietnamese.
Increased voter outreach is crucial, said Hodson, because even anecdotal evidence suggests that many members of historically excluded populations don’t even know that voter materials are available in their languages.
King County Elections Director Julie Wise was at a campaign event for members of the Vietnamese community in 2015 and asked how many people knew they could get ballots in their own language.
“Out of several hundred, only one person raised his hand,” said Hodson. Wise helped advocate for the changes, she said.
The VEF was intended to remedy such deficiencies. The Seattle Foundation, one of the region’s largest philanthropies, which led a $30 million COVID relief fund, joined in and this year matched the county’s contribution.
Since its inception four years ago, the fund has already had a huge impact on voter turnout.
After the first year, those asking for ballots in languages other than English increased by 62%. And in the presidential primary, the turnout for 2016 was 33% while in 2020, 56% of King County residents turned out.
“There are many factors that determine turnout, but the VEF without question was definitely one of those factors,” said Hannah Kurowski, Communications Officer at King County Elections.
VEF’s most recent round of funding, from 2019-2020, may give a better clue as to the types of activities it values for the current round.
Both larger organizations, such as International Community Health Services (ICHS) and smaller, grassroots groups, such as Urbvote, were funded by two-year grants.
After conducting traditional activities, such as setting up tables at events, visiting schools and senior housing, and partnering with industries like Goodwill during the first year, staff at ICHS were forced to come up with more creative solutions after the pandemic hit.
Sharissa Tjok, a community health services manager at ICHS, and her colleagues were administering a $40,000 grant. They asked every single member of the health center’s four clinics to wear a special mask emblazoned with a slogan encouraging people to register to vote.
They began finding new ways to get voter education materials to community members, such as adding them to packages of masks being distributed at large or stuffing them into first aid kits or bags of food. They joined in other activities, such as promotion of the census.
In some cases, they still went door to door, such as in affordable communities like Mercy Housing.
They ramped up social media outreach, for instance, asking ICHS’ 550 staff members to post individual encouragement to register to vote on their personal Facebook pages.
“We had to think creatively to get the whole staff involved,” said Tjok.
Urbvote, an organization aimed at Black voters, had to adjust radically as well.
Originally holding events at nightclubs or music performances, where you had to first register to vote to be admitted, the organization quickly shifted focus. With a grant of $15,000 from the VEF, Chukundi “DJ Kun Luv” Salisbury, founder and executive director of Urbvote, pivoted quickly after the pandemic struck.
Salisbury had a history of creative strategy. In 2018, Urbvote joined with Garfield High School and Ezell’s Chicken so that every senior who voted got a free meal, he said.
Other outreach targeted Black barber shops, traditionally centers of Black culture.
Using some of the grant money, Salisbury booked a whole day of haircuts from Earl’s Cuts and Styles. To get a haircut, one had to be registered to vote.
“But it was not only about the 15 people who got haircuts that day, the event created a buzz,” said Salisbury.
One man getting a haircut said he did not believe that a felon could still have the right to vote after Salisbury shared the fact with the room. (After a felon is released and no longer under the authority of the Department of Corrections, the right to vote is restored although re-registration is required.)
Later, the man went on to vote for the first time and write about it on his Facebook page, encouraging others to do the same. Voting not only can change policy, but it changes people’s perceptions of themselves, say grantees.
“If they feel they can vote, then they feel they can make a change with their vote and it will encourage them to feel they have agency over the biggest problems in their lives,” said Tjok of ICHS.
She said, for instance, that many residents of the Chinatown-International District did not know they could do something about two issues that matter to them—safety and rising housing prices.
“The data shows people are much more engaged in society when they understand they can vote to change things,” she said.
Salisbury recounted a conversation in which a Burien man said, “Voting doesn’t change anything!”
In response, Salisbury asked him if he knew about a recent levy in Burien in which the school district wanted to raise money to ensure all students had access to a computer.
“And he had been complaining his daughter couldn’t afford a computer,” he said.
Salisbury also spoke to Black Lives Matter activists during recent protests.
“Some people say, ‘We’ve got to burn it down,’ but I said, ‘If you really want to change policy, you have to change the law and you can do that through voting for policy makers.’”
He said some people, concerned about King County police practices, did not know that the King County Sheriff was elected.
Bao-Tram Do, program officer for the Seattle Foundation, said the VEF was continually trying to fund grassroots organizations that could reach historically excluded populations.
Do’s father was a political prisoner for eight years in Vietnam before the family immigrated to the United States.
Some of the 39 organizations, out of 70 applicants, that received grants focus on reaching voters both before and after they’ve been incarcerated.
“Democracy works better when everyone can vote,” said Do.
To make voter education possible, King County Elections employs translators who often work under tremendous pressure to achieve accuracy in rendering voter materials accessible.
“My heart is pounding just standing here,” said Signe Chan, the lead Chinese translator for the agency in her first ever media interview. Still, the real pressure she faces is to translate ballot statements from candidates or pro and con explanations about initiatives up for the vote.
“Sometimes we have to go back to the candidate to verify we’re accurately conveying the precise meaning, for instance when there’s slang involved,” she said.
During the November election, a Chinese American woman on the Eastside forgot to add her contact information when filling out her ballot. The ballot was stolen along with other mail when a thief plundered her mailbox. Later, the police found the ballot discarded on the street and contacted King County Elections.
“We decided to invalidate it and issue a new ballot,” said Chan.
But because she did not have the phone number or email address of the voter, she had to drive out to her home in person, explain what had happened, and offer a replacement ballot. A large part of her job is also to help the VEF partners.
To be eligible for a grant, organizations must be categorized as a 501c3 nonprofit.
Applicants can apply for up to $40,000 to develop and implement a strategic, ongoing campaign to engage current or potential voters, or up to $15,000 to provide a series of targeted events. The first installment will be distributed in May 2021 and the second in early 2022.
King County Elections and Seattle Foundation will host an informational session over Zoom on March 22, from 4:30–6pm. To receive the Zoom link, email Bao-Tram Do at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mahlon can be reached at email@example.com.