Lessons from the LWV of Jacksonville First Coast
By Ashish Bajaj, VP, Voter Services, LWV of Jacksonville First Coast
“I have been waiting so long for this” she said as she handed me her voter registration form. She was a 24-year-old woman from South America and her excitement was palpable. Most of her excitement probably stemmed from the fact that she had just become a US citizen, but I’d like to think that signing up to vote was also a big deal.
She was impeccably dressed – they all are, as they arrive at the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) offices in Jacksonville, FL with their families and friends, neighbors and co-workers – to take the oath of citizenship. And the excitement as they walk out of the ceremony shows on everyone’s face.
The League of Women Voters of Jacksonville First Coast has been working with USCIS for over a year to register new voters as they leave their naturalization ceremonies. In 2017, we registered 786 new citizens as voters.
The new citizens aren’t the only ones excited to participate; our volunteers also find it incredibly rewarding. Lanelle Phillmon, one of our most active volunteers, explains: “I feel very humbled and honored to help my fellow Americans register to vote in their newly obtained status, citizenship and country. This is just as patriotic for me as was my 27 1/2 years of Navy service.”
For me, the experience is very personal, because I remember my parents telling me about their own citizenship test and naturalization process. I’ve watched several times as new groups take the oath of citizenship, and each time, I get a lump in my throat. I suspect that natural-born Americans are similarly moved.
Our League began this partnership with USCIS in 2016 and made this a weekly event by May 2017. League member Bernadette Miron took the initiative of searching for the right contact in the Jacksonville USCIS field office and working with them to set up a regular event. It took some time to have the event become a weekly activity, and our experience may be helpful to other Leagues.
How to Start
The first step is for the leadership team (or chair) to understand the voter registration process in your area. Make sure that you understand the rules and consider your ability to be able to conduct voter registration within the regulations.
Then, connect with the USCIS field office in your area. Find out if and when they conduct naturalization ceremonies and who the key contacts are. Encourage those contacts to work with your League to conduct voter registration drives immediately after the naturalization ceremonies. If they are interested, work with them to identify an area near the naturalization ceremonies and see if they can secure a table or other area for you to set up. The USCIS offices operate with very strict security rules and you may want to do a site visit to fully prepare for the first event.
While you’re doing this, you can build your volunteer team. Recruit members to register voters and have them complete your state’s certification process. Many Leagues will already have members who are certified, but you may need more. We have up to 6 volunteer slots each week and we need about 3 times as many certified volunteers to fill those slots each week. As with many volunteer activities, you may find that a small handful of volunteers fill most of the slots.
Next, create a sign-up process. The LWV Jacksonville First Coast uses a spreadsheet on Google. We use it to communicate dates & times, available slots, and volunteer and USCIS contact information. We also track the applications we completed and ensure they are dropped off at the Supervisor of Elections office in time.
You’ll also need to gather resources: clipboards, pens, signs, and most importantly, voter registration forms. You’ll have to plan in advance how to share these resources – since your volunteers may vary from week to week, will make sure the right people have the resources they need before each event. As states move to electronic registration, your need for resources may change.
Finally, conduct your first event. Arrive early to set up – we set out forms and prepare clipboards with pens in advance. We also find that it works best to have someone actively greeting the new citizens and encouraging them to register to vote. Approximately half the new citizens want to register to vote right away.
After the event, make sure that you have a process for turning in the completed voter registration forms to your Supervisor of Elections. Building a good relationship with them will also help over time.
It’s also a good idea to check in with your USCIS contacts regularly; we try to touch base twice a month. Sometimes the number of prospective citizens changes on short notice, so naturalization ceremonies can be added or cancelled. In our area, hurricanes can disrupt the schedule throughout the fall.
Although the planning and work to develop a regular voter registration drive for new citizens comes with challenges, it’s clear that our volunteers feel it’s worth the effort and is meaningful to our members, the USCIS and our new citizens. As Lanelle Phillmon said, “I have met new citizens from so many different nations that have different languages, attire, culture, religions, and appearances but they each are so proud of their new citizenship and their new identity as an American. And for many, registering to vote appears to be a very patriotic act, their first act as an American.”