Step 1 in getting out the vote among Pierce County’s Cambodian community

Darren Pen, a member of the Washington State Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs, uses state identification to help Cambodians register to vote Tuesday at Holy Family of Jesus Cambodian Episcopal Church in Tacoma.
Darren Pen, a member of the Washington State Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs, uses state identification to help Cambodians register to vote Tuesday at Holy Family of Jesus Cambodian Episcopal Church in Tacoma. lwong@thenewstribune.com

Ken Tien is an 84-year-old grandmother who sometime this year will cast her first vote in a U.S. election.

Or any election.

In her native Cambodia, Tien never had the chance to vote. Coups, dictators and the dreaded Khmer Rouge led to decades of war, genocide and anything but a democracy.

Tien fled to the United States in 1993, eventually settling in Tacoma.

On Tuesday, she was one of more than 70 Cambodian seniors who registered to vote, most for the first time.

The crowd reflected the blending of two nations. Women in traditional dress mixed with men in Seattle Seahawks jerseys. Cambodian flags alternating with the Stars and Stripes provided a backdrop to a group of women singing the Cambodian national anthem.

The grass-roots effort was organized by Darren Pen of the Washington State Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs.

It was held at the Indochinese Cultural and Service Center in the basement of the Holy Family of Jesus Cambodian Episcopal Church on East 40th Street in Tacoma.

Outside the church, a couple dozen people were selling fresh lemongrass, sticky rice, Cambodian movies and ginger the size of dinner plates at a weekly farmers market.

Inside, seniors were getting ready for a fish lunch organized by the Korean Women’s Association.

Pen scheduled the pre-lunch registration drive as the first in a series aimed at several Asian-Pacific communities. He said his motivation for this event was to get naturalized U.S. citizens involved in American democracy. It was not to talk politics.

“They asked me, ‘Who should I vote for?’ but it’s not my job,” Pen said. “We don’t want to get involved with the politics.”

Pen noted that registration is only the beginning of the process. He wants Cambodian community members to meet candidates, discuss issues and ask questions.

“Nobody has come here and told them about the issues,” he said.

Pierce County Auditor Julie Anderson was on the scene. It was the latest in a series of community events she’s attended.

“I’ve been doing a spurt of outreach to all sorts of minority communities, English-learning language communities, Samoan seniors, Japanese, Chinese,” Anderson said.

She said she has been finding that seniors often change addresses as they move in with family or into assisted living. They often don’t understand the necessity of having current address information on file.

“It’s important to not ignore the aging population, and it’s especially important to not ignore people who don’t speak English as their first language,” Anderson said.

In addition, she said, using volunteers who have the respect of the community builds trust in the process.

“This is something that our staff, without hiring a fleet of translators, wouldn’t be able to do,” Anderson said.

Sochantha “So” Meng was one of the volunteers registering voters Tuesday at the church.

Along with his other volunteer work, Meng teaches the Cambodian language, culture and history to ethnic Cambodians and anyone else interested at the Pierce County Library.

Meng, 35, was born in a Cambodian refugee camp in Thailand and immigrated to the United States at age 3. He’s bicultural and bilingual.

As soon as Meng and the other 11 volunteers were ready to start filling out forms, they were swamped with potential voters.

Though the registration forms were in Cambodian, most of the people registering still couldn’t read them. Meng estimated only 10 to 15 percent of the seniors in the room could read or write.

“Growing up, they weren’t educated,” he said, “especially if they were girls. They didn’t teach girls to read and write. You needed money. The only way to get a free education was to be a monk. And the French didn’t want them to learn Cambodian, only French.”

Cambodia was occupied by France for nearly a century.

For identification purposes, the seniors produced either a Washington State driver’s license, ID card or the last four digits of their Social Security numbers. When the forms are processed at the auditor’s office, identification will be verified, Anderson said.

“We’re not just entering the information and calling it a day,” she said.

Volunteers also were checking that the people registering were U.S. citizens.

“The only time when we get worried is when people who have limited English skills don’t understand what U.S. citizen means,” Anderson said. “So that’s what the volunteers are helping to do — making sure that these are naturalized immigrants who have taken their oath of citizenship.”

Anderson told the group that their first ballot would arrive about May 10, another ballot in August and finally one for the general presidential election in November.

She also told them they would be getting a voter’s pamphlet — in English — in the mail.

Meng estimated he registered more than 20 people Tuesday.

“My hand is sore,” he said when he was finished.

The voting process still confuses many of the people he registered.

“They’re concerned who to vote for, what’s the process after this,” Meng said. “They think this is voting. That’s why I want to help out.”

For grandmother Tien, she was just happy to be able to elect her leaders.

“She’s thankful for democracy,” Meng translated. “She’s happy that America gave her a place to live, food, security. She wants to give back.”

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541, @crsailor

English only the beginning

In addition to English and Cambodian, the Washington secretary of state produces voter registration forms in 12 other languages: Chinese, Spanish, Vietnamese, Arabic, Burmese, Japanese, Korean, Laotian, Russian, Somali, Tagalog and Ukranian.

Amharic and Punjabi will be added this year, said Stuart Holmes, election information systems supervisor.

The Voting Rights Act requires that ballots and voter pamphlets be printed in languages other than English when a specific population reaches 5 percent or 10,000 people in a county.

To determine that figure, a complex census-based formula takes into consideration language, voting age, citizenship and education. So far, only King County meets those numbers and prints pamphlets and ballots in Vietnamese and Chinese.

More registration info

The deadline to register to vote in the May 24 primaries is April 25. There is no cost to register, and no political party affiliation is required.

Registration forms are available at the state departments of Licensing and Social and Health Services.

Washington is a vote-by-mail state.