Election campaigners and voting rights advocates hoping to reach Haitian-Americans across Florida said they are focused on getting people to vote by mail due to COVID-19 and educating them about the voting process in the lead-up to the elections.
Much of their focus is on Haitian enclaves like Little Haiti and North Miami, which make up a significant portion of the 107,654 total registered voters in their county’s commission district. In those neighborhoods, community organizations like FANM are sending out canvassers to remind residents about ballot deadlines, answer questions about the process and assuage fears about voting. And they are doing so in Haitian Creole to engage the electorate.
“If we continue to educate voters and encourage them to vote by mail, I think that people will come out, especially given what’s at stake nationally,” said Marleine Bastien, FANM’s executive director. “We’ve realized that a lot of people in our community do not know how to vote. We take voter engagement very seriously, especially now.”
Miami-Dade County is also providing official instructions in Creole for Haitian voters who wish to vote by mail.
Other groups are following much the same script, largely due to the strategy that Democrats are implementing across the state. Karen Andre, senior advisor to Biden’s Florida statewide campaign, said voting by mail is the only way to assure the safest, most reliable count of votes.
“Voters should make their voting plans by requesting their ballots now and mailing them back or by placing them in an official dropbox at an early voting precinct as soon as possible,” said Andre. “Voters can even track their ballots with their local Supervisor of Elections to ensure they were counted.”
In virtual, phone and in-person conversations, Democratic campaign workers and volunteers are explaining to voters the steps of obtaining a mail-in ballot that is in both English and Creole, teaching them to interpret the legalese into plain language, and telling them where to return ballots by the deadline.
Vanessa Joseph, chairwoman of the Haitian-American Voters Empowerment Coalition, based in North Miami, said the group reassures people that voting-by-mail is safe and a good option given the prevalence of COVID-19.
“This is a grassroots effort to equip every-day folks who live in these neighborhoods to help their neighbors who may not be able to read,” said Joseph. “We’re really trying to make sure that the Haitian-American community is seen for its voting power. With so many Haitians, it could potentially change an election, at least for Florida.”
Groups such as the Florida Immigrant Coalition and the newly-formed Ayisyen Pou Biden are boosting their virtual, digital and phone efforts in Creole. In addition to the mail-in-voting detailed steps, they also explain how to vote in person if they choose.
“We’ve been intentionally reaching out to Creole voters in their language,” said Joel Bravo, senior field manager at the Florida Immigrant Coalition.
Andre said at a recent virtual town hall that voting in person on election day is risky and she doesn’t want to leave anything to chance. She is focused on letting voters know when they can cast their absentee ballot early.
Still, many voters still believe the risk of fraud is too great to mail their ballot.
The Trump campaign’s disparagement of vote-by-mail has added to the confusion about the voting process.
Another issue is literacy, some community members said.
Mavreen Masere, an independent translator, is concerned about ballot accessibility in general in the Haitian community nationwide. She is available to go through ballots virtually with voters — at no charge to them directly or to non-profit groups.
“A lot of our clients only made it to Kindergarten or first grade, and can barely read Creole,” Masere said, who is based in Raleigh, NC. “I can tell that they can’t understand it because they are just staring at it and it doesn’t seem to make sense.”
Zandile Nkabinde, a New Jersey-based professor who has written about immigrant participation in elections, said immigrant voters’ language needs must be addressed.
“For those [with] little education and even for those with education, if it’s not straightforward, you are more likely to just throw it in the garbage,” Nkabinde said. “With the language barrier, something has to be done to encourage immigrant voters.”