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Rich Seattle votes more than Tukwila: one effort to turn that around

Amina Ahmed faces an uphill battle on a breezy Saturday morning in a neighborhood straddling Tukwila and SeaTac: She's running a voter registration drive.

Ahmed is up against power and influence in American politics. The wealthy have it. And they also vote at much higher rates.

In the 2012 presidential election, there was a 33-point difference in national voter participation rates between high and low earners.

That was true for the greater Seattle area, too. Voter turnout in this location was more than 24 percentage points below Seattle's in the last presidential election. And median household incomes here are just 37 percent of Seattle’s.

That adds up to political and economic inequality: Just like the country as a whole, lower incomes correspond to lower voter participation rates.

Ahmed is executive director of the nonprofit group, Partner in Employment. They help immigrants and refugees in the region find work. But this month —

“We are trying to engage the community, the East African community and any community - residents of SeaTac and Tukwila,” Ahmed said. "And we are trying to encourage them to register and then hopefully cast their ballots and vote."

One obstacle for potential voters is too little information. Ahmed’s colleague, Hien Kiew, said many immigrants think they just wait until Election Day to submit a ballot.

“But that's not how it works, so we need to educate them to let them know that you have to first register before you can vote,” Kiew said.

“It's very difficult, trying to get people from another country to understand the system of voting here. I've talked to people who have been here 25-30 years and have not registered to vote, not quite understand the system. And of course it's much more challenging speaking to those who are newer to the country.”

Amina Ahmed agrees. “We have been doing this every weekend now starting the last four weeks. It's not that easy. It's about trust. As long as the community trusts you I believe they will register and so far we are doing pretty good.”

The voter registration effort here is small and the voter participation gap is big, but Ahmed said this election year is different.

“A lot of people have been scared of what about who becomes the president? Are we going to remain in United States? What is going to happen? What about those of us who are not yet citizens? Are we going to become a citizen? Is there going to be deportation? A lot of people are just worried.”

They’re having some success in registering new voters. Rashid Abdi is here to sign up. He is originally from Somalia and now lives in Tukwila

“It's my first time to vote since I've become a citizen last year,” Abdi said. “So it's good to choose the vision you have on what you like. So it matters to vote.”

Abdi is most concerned with issues affecting children and education. He also worries about rising rents. His has gone up three times in just three years – a hundred dollar increase just this year alone. It might not sound like a lot if you live in Seattle, but to Abdi, it's a real hardship.

For her part, Ahmed is optimistic that more voting this year is going to help the immigrant and refugee community.

She said voters here tell her there are candidates who inspire fear, but there are also candidates this year who just inspire. 

“The only way we can make a difference is for people to vote,” Ahmed said. “If people don't vote then we're not going to make a difference and it's going to be a lot of fear for everyone, but if we vote and voice up, then I think people can make a difference.”

Year started with KUOW: 2004