Canvassers from Dominicanos USA walk down the street in Corona, Queens. “We get to meet a lot of people and develop those bonds with the community,” says Yohan Diaz, left.

Canvassers from Dominicanos USA walk down the street in Corona, Queens. “We get to meet a lot of people and develop those bonds with the community,” says Yohan Diaz, left.

by Nomin Ujiyediin

After three years working as a canvasser in New York City, Austine Martinez has learned a lot. Like how to tell whether passersby are of Dominican descent – it’s everything from the music they play, to the language they’re speaking, to the way they look.
“Little things like that, you learn on the job,” he said on a sunny afternoon spent recruiting voters in Corona, Queens.

The knowledge comes in handy in his position as a junior organizer with Dominicanos USA, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization based in the Bronx. Alongside other canvassers, Martinez has spent hours at a time pounding the pavement in heavily Dominican and Latino neighborhoods across the city like Corona, Washington Heights, Inwood and Bushwick.

Since its inception in 2013, Dominicanos USA has registered more than 140,000 voters in the Northeast, including more than 100,000 in New York and more than 30,000 in Rhode Island, where a smaller office is based. The organization’s goal is to increase the political participation of Dominicans, the largest Latino ethnic group in the city, by enabling them to vote and helping them become naturalized citizens.

Its employees and volunteers knock on doors, hand out flyers and make phone calls. But the bulk of Dominicanos USA’s efforts are focused on sending trained canvassers, like Martinez, to walk through communities, along commercial corridors and past busy intersections, in search of unregistered voters.

“We have very dedicated canvassers of all ages that have been out there in rain, snow, cold weather, doing voter registration the old-fashioned way,” said the nonprofit’s national executive director Eddie Cuesta in a phone interview.

The organization targets specific neighborhoods and even buildings based on a statistical model developed by Catalist, a data company based in Washington, D.C. Called the “Dominican model,” it uses data from the census and the city government to identify areas with the highest concentrations of Dominicans. While Dominicanos USA doesn’t exclusively register Dominican voters, this approach helps the organization to efficiently find its primary demographic, said Cuesta. And it enhances traditional “get-out-the-vote” methods, like canvassing and setting up tables.

“We get to meet a lot of people and develop those bonds with the community,” said canvasser Yohan Diaz. At the same time, talking to strangers every day means learning to get used to rejection. Some people he approaches can’t vote because they are foreign citizens, and many are suspicious or just uninterested.

Speaking Spanish helps, of course. And so does persistence. “A lot of people say no, but there’s always that one person that makes it worth it,” Diaz said.

In Austine Martinez’s experience, non-citizens from the Dominican Republic are often the ones who wish they could register. “In DR, everyone votes. Politics are big,” he said.

In the United States, the concerns of Dominican voters don’t differ from those of other citizens, according to Cuesta. The economy, affordable housing, education and immigration are all on the minds of Dominican Americans. “They’re very politically savvy,” he said.

But there are certain aspects of voting in the United States that some immigrants aren’t familiar with, like needing to register for a specific party in order to vote in primary elections, or finding the right polling place. Local residents often call or visit the Dominicanos USA office on E. 149th Street in the Bronx to ask for help, said Cuesta. And educating these voters is part of the organization’s mission.

But since the deadline to register for the presidential election passed on Oct. 14, the organization has begun to focus on making sure that registered voters follow through.

On Election Day, Dominicanos USA will provide car rides and pedestrian escorts for voters who need them. Some employees will wait outside polling places before they open at 6 a.m., making sure that they open on time and that interpreters are present. Others will come back in the evening, when many people leave work and vote, to answer questions. Others will stay in the office to monitor the phones, which ring constantly, said Omar Suarez, New York state director.

For Suarez, Election Day begins at 4 a.m. and won’t end until late in the evening, after the polls close. But the long, hectic hours of directing employees and answering phone calls are worthwhile to reach a group he feels is underserved.

“Most of the talk about the Hispanic vote, the Latino vote, it’s all filtered through somebody. This is not filtered. You just talk to them,” he said.

source: Voices of NY

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