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Ahead of Kentucky elections, initiatives to bolster immigrant political participation take shape

A white sign with an American flag. There is a red arrow pointing left, above which it says, "VOTE HERE" and below which it says, "VOTE AQUI."
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Creative Commons
Local efforts to encourage immigrants to register to vote include a focus on Hispanic residents.

For some residents born outside the United States, political participation isn't always a straightforward process. Community advocates in Louisville are working to engage and help immigrants harness their voting power.

When Jomaris DeJesus moved to Louisville from her home in Puerto Rico as a teenager, she watched her father volunteer as an election worker every year.

At the time, she said, she didn’t understand why it was so important to him if he wasn’t getting paid for that work.

“He said being part of the war effort in Vietnam made him realize the people we put in power have the power to decide whether we go to war or not. And I want my grandkids to have a choice in those decisions,” she said.

Now DeJesus, a county commissioner, wants to tap immigrants in Louisville to participate actively in politics. She said they can have a say in shaping policy that matters to them.

DeJesus is organizing a town hall to empower Latinx residents to take part in civic processes and help officials engage with the community.

“The issue is, we’re seeing rapid population growth in Louisville driven by immigrants. They even contribute in taxes and to the Louisville economy. But a lot of immigrants haven’t really been taken seriously as a voting bloc in the city by officials. And that needs to change,” she said.

DeJesus said the town hall will offer English and Spanish translators in an effort to help local and state officials in attendance communicate with participants.

And for American citizens who weren’t born here, politics back home may influence how much they perceive their political participation in the U.S. would make a difference, she said.

“I want more Hispanic residents who are hesitant to ask questions because of the language barrier to be more open. My hope is that the immigrant community and Hispanic community can leverage that value of collectivism that we bring with us,” she said.

The town hall will take place on Sept. 19, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at Sojourn Carlisle, a church at 3548 Taylor Blvd.

Another piece of the puzzle: Naturalization

There are 58,628 immigrants in Jefferson County, an analysis of the United States Census’ 5-year 2018 American Community Survey by the American Immigration Council showed. That tool estimated about 38% of those immigrants are eligible to vote. The 2021 American Community Survey said a little more than a third of the county’s foreign-born residents are of Hispanic or Latino origin.

More than 619,000 Jefferson County residents overall are registered to vote, according to the county clerk’s office. That’s more than 80% of the local population.

There isn’t solid data showing how many immigrants in Louisville are eligible or registered to vote. But some local voting advocates, like DeJesus, are hoping to get more of them ready to participate in November’s elections, when Kentuckians will decide the next governor and other statewide officials.

The off-year elections are a year ahead of the presidential race. Experts say that leads to an overall low voter turnout rate.    

The New Americans Initiative is a nonprofit started by Democratic state Representative Nima Kulkarni of Louisville. It aims to engage and empower immigrants in the community. The nonprofit recently launched “One Vote, One Voice,” a voter registration drive focused on immigrants in Louisville and across Kentucky.

Three smiling women standing in a tent booth
The New Americans Initiative
State Rep. Nima Kulkarni with representatives from The League of Women Voters at a voter registration drive at WorldFest on Sept. 3, 2023.

Kulkarni said she also wants to help more immigrants start the naturalization process who are eligible to be U.S. citizens but face barriers. The process can be long and expensive, she said. Getting naturalized is one major piece in getting more immigrants actively involved in politics, Kulkarni said. Only citizens can vote in federal elections and many state and local elections.

She said the group is in the process of determining how many immigrants are eligible to be citizens, and how many are already able to register to vote.

“It’s a huge opportunity for us to make sure that all of those people that are moving to this country and state feel like they’re Americans because they are. And the potential there to influence the nature of our government and our policy is key,” she said.

Statewide elections in Kentucky will take place on Nov. 7. The voter registration deadline is Oct. 10 and 4 p.m. local time. Details about who is allowed to register and what that requires are available through the Secretary of State’s website.

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Jomaris DeJesus' name.

Divya is LPM's Race & Equity Reporter. Email Divya at dkarthikeyan@lpm.org.