By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
With the November primary right around the corner, efforts to engage voters of all ages are in full gear in King County and around the country. Particular focus in recent years has been on those of voting age among underrepresented communities and youth of color. King County Elections’ language access and outreach coordinator, KC Jung, does not predict a decline, though, in the number of voters showing up this year. 2020 was a record year for voting, in spite of COVID-19, and she has seen a steady increase in turnout since she joined the office in 2016.
“Especially in underserved communities, their interest…is increasing,” Jung said. She attributes this in part to King County Elections’ cooperation with the Seattle Foundation to form the Voter Education Fund. Nonprofit, nonpartisan organizations may apply to receive funds for voter outreach to their communities. 2021-2022 grantees of this Fund, which is in its sixth year, include the Asian Counseling and Referral Service, the Refugee
Women’s Alliance, and the Indian Association of Western Washington, which operates on the east side, in the Bellevue and Redmond area. According to Jung, the Fund is meant to be utilized primarily to reach voters who might have language barriers, voters of color, and members of other, underserved communities.
“Among those organizations, two or three, at least…are related to youth groups,” she told the Weekly. “They do door-to-door outreach…to let voters know that an election is coming,” and Jung’s office follows up with these nonprofits to make sure they are using the funds properly.
Of course, local nonprofits conduct voter outreach outside of this Fund. The Chinese Information and Services Center (CISC), for instance, reaches young voters who are parents with kids in their preschool and after-school programs. “We reach parents who may be in that age range,” say, up until their 30s, explained Executive Director Michael Itti, “…about the importance of registering to vote and voting.” CISC has partnered with the City of Seattle “to educate community members about the Democracy Voucher Program,” said Itti. “We also encourage people to sign up for translated ballots that are available from King County Elections.”
Jung explained that King County Elections goes out to civic engagement classes at King County public high schools, where they do a presentation followed by voter registration. She granted that during the first waves of COVID-19, the office “went into panic mode” just like everyone else and because classes were shut down, so was the outreach. But recently, things have opened up. “King County and Washington state is mail-in voting,” Jung pointed out. “I don’t see that much difference. You are staying home anyway and we are mailing the ballot out. You can just mail it back.” Those ballots should be coming to your mailbox by Oct. 24 for the November elections.
Another strategy, next to engaging young voters where they live or work, is engaging them early. “If you have a habit to vote from a young age, then…you will turn out,” Jung assured. “You will grow up down the road to be a regular voter…The habit from a young age is very important.” To this end, King County has a “Future Voters” program, wherein any young person with a permit or state-issued ID may pre-register to vote at age 16 or 17. This year, if the person will be 18 when the general election hits, then he or she will be allowed to vote in the November primary. “If they have the ID, they can go to voter.votewa.gov and pre-register,” said Jung. “As soon as they hit 18, we automatically mail out the ballot, if there is an election in their precinct.”
While Jung and her staff work to engage young voters locally, alongside King County nonprofits, nationally, organizations such as Rock the Vote strive to do the same. “In an age of disinformation and voter suppression efforts, we hope to make voting more accessible and empower young voters with the information they need to be voters,” said Rock the Vote spokesperson Charlie Bonner. “Knowledge is powerful, and it is empowering to know things like how to register to vote and how to research what’s on your ballot. We offer the tools to educate young and/or first-time voters so they feel confident casting their ballots.” Along with Jung, Rock the Vote acknowledges that young voters are more comfortable on the Internet than on paper, so in 2001, they launched the “first-ever online voter registration tool,” and since then, have worked with “over 1,100 tech partners to make civic participation more accessible.”
Rock the Vote has also hooked into youth interest in online platforms to reach more potential voters. “Most recently, we partnered with GameOn to offer 24/7 responses to questions about voting in the 2022 midterm elections through a bot on the Rock the Vote website,” Bonner said.
“We know that young people have a lot of political power. It’s why young people, especially young people of color, face some of the greatest voting suppression efforts by those already in power.” Bonner cited several obstacles and “modes of disenfranchisement” of young voters of color, such as “polling locations being moved away from college campuses, or further away from Black and brown neighborhoods,” and yet Rock the Vote continues to be hopeful that “young people recognize the importance of voting in this midterm election.”
Young voters of color are more impactful than they imagine. “Diverse representation in government makes a big difference,” said Itti. “Young people bring new perspectives and creative ideas to difficult challenges.
When they vote, they shift the agenda and dialogue. They motivate their entire family to vote, which strengthens the community.” In many cases, parents might be hesitant to vote because of a language barrier, they don’t understand the process, or they remember that in their country, their vote did not matter.
“It’s different in the U.S.,” Jung insisted. She recalled that when she first came to the States from Korea, she too felt confused about the process. At that time, she couldn’t “explain or educate my kids” about voting. Voting outreach relies in large part on young people to get the word out. “If King County Elections educates young voters, they can go to their parents and educate them,” Jung said. “Your vote matters. Your voice matters…No matter who you are, one voter has one vote.”
Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.