Getting Out the Somali Vote

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On Thursday, October 25, OneAmerica held our first Somali-language phonebank of this election season in Tukwila and it was one of my favorites to date.

I will be honest, it took a while to get it up and going. As part of our huge civic engagement program, we organized satellite phone banks in order to increase our capaicty and make volunteering more accessible to more people. But it required not only a certain level of technical knowledge, but also a degree of faith that the technology would actually work when you needed it most.

Once we did get the technology piece up and going, we went over our phonebank script and that’s when a very important question arose. Our volunteers - Somali childcare providers form SEIU 925 that lived in the area - wanted to know why we were calling people to ask them to vote but not telling them who to vote for. It was clear to them which candidates, if elected, would benefit our East African community. Furthermore, they didn’t see the point in calling people just to tell them to vote; after all, why wouldn’t anyone with a ballot just turn it in? 

It was great to hear these questions because they are the exact reason that we are hosting phonebanks and inviting members of our community to help in making calls in the first place. The fact is that of the millions of eligible voters in our state, that less than half of them actually vote. In immigrant communities, the number is even lower. And we intend to change that.

In Tukwila, where three of the women last night lived, and where there is a huge Somali population, the total number of people that vote in elections is less than 3,000. Imagine, in a city with more than 20,000 residents, less than 15% of the people make all the decisions. Based on research, people are more likely to actually return their ballots if they are reminded - whether by a knock on the door, a reminder from a friend or community member, or a phone call.

Every election year there are a variety of efforts to make contact with people in order to remind them to fill out and return their ballots and even with these efforts, turnout is never close to 100% in our state. Many of these efforts do not even try to reach out to newer immigrant voters because of the cultural and language barriers that exist that makes it difficult to make contact and communicate with them over the phone or at a door. That's where OneAmeirca steps in.

Which brings us back to last night’s phone bank. We had pulled names of registered Somali voters ahead of time and recruited Somali volunteers to call them, because these voters were more likely to fill out and return their ballots that way. If they did not get a call at all or got a call when they didn’t understand what the caller was talking about, they were going to be much less likely to return their ballot. 

When the volunteers heard this they were sold and we started making our calls. Right away it was clear that the conversations volunteers were having over the phone, even though they were not about a candidate, were longer than other during phonebanks we've been doing. People that got calls had lots of questions about voting that our volunteers were able to answer. Some people had not gotten ballots yet, some were confused about who in their household was registered to vote and who was not, some wanted an overview about the voting process and some wanted to know how to turn their ballots in and by when.  

All in all, even without supporting any candidate or issue, it was clear that the calls made last night had an impact.  That, along with the great conversation leading up to it, made it memorable and I can wait to do it again next week!

If you have questions about voting or are interested in phonebanking with us, please don’t hesitate to contact me at rahwa@weareoneamerica.org.

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