No Clipboards, Just Conversations: Canvassing For New Voters In N.H.'s Immigrant Communities
It’s a little before 11 a.m., a little over a week before the election, just off of Union Street on Manchester’s East Side. And Eva Castillo is on a mission.
“This is a very invasive thing to do,” she says, under her breath, before turning her attention to the young men she just spotted walking into an apartment building on Cedar Street.
“¿Ustedes votan?” she shouts across a stretch of green space. “Do you vote?”
They’re kind of skeptical, but she’s not letting them off the hook easily.
“No, you don’t vote? Why?” she asks. “¿No son ciudadanos, o no te gusta?” Are you not citizens, she asks, or does it not appeal to you?
Castillo, who leads the New Hampshire Alliance for Immigrants and Refugees, doesn’t believe the men when they tell her they’re not citizens. She also doesn’t dwell too long when they brush her off, continuing inside the building. She does this kind of thing a lot, playfully heckling strangers on the sidewalk about their plans to vote — especially right before an election.
“I’ll just approach anybody that looks Latino, and I talk to them,” Castillo says. “And if they don’t know me, they look at me kind of weird, because I don’t look like Latino. But once they hear my voice, they’re OK.”
It can be hard for those who speak Spanish — or anything other than English, really — to find reliable information about how to vote in New Hampshire.
Federal law requires states to offer language assistance once a non-English speaking population reaches a certain threshold, but New Hampshire hasn’t officially crossed that mark, and the Secretary of State’s office has declined to take more action without a mandate.
So, for decades now, Castillo and a small army of community leaders have been putting in extra work — often out of the spotlight and often during their free time — to make sure the state’s Latino community isn’t left out.
Last Saturday, that work began outside Beech Street School, which also happens to be the polling place for one of the most diverse voting wards in the state. From there, Castillo and her fellow canvassers fanned out to nearby bodegas, barber shops and even the parking lots of local mechanics, trying to reach any eligible voter who wasn’t already registered, like the young man she approached while he was waiting in line for food at one local market.
“¡Vota niño!” she urged, after learning he had never cast a ballot before. “Don’t waste your citizenship!”
Within a few minutes, he had been convinced to hop in the car to go straight to Manchester City Hall, which was holding special voting hours that same Saturday. Castillo later found out he did cast a ballot that afternoon, after all.
Castillo, an immigrant herself, has long been active as an advocate for New Hampshire’s immigrant and refugee communities. She’s involved in lots of different groups, including NHPR’s Spanish media advisory board, and during this canvassing trip she was passing out voting information produced by NHPR.
The weekend before, she says, she went out with election pamphlets from a public health organization, and she’s done some version of this route, with or without material to pass out, for about 20 years.
Her real focus is always the conversations along the way and encouraging people to “claim their power,” though she says it's not always enough to just tell people to vote.
“We’ve been treated as invisible for so long that some people embrace the fact that they are invisible,” she says, “instead of becoming the pebble in the shoe until you pay attention to me.”
But she doesn’t blame those voters who aren’t as eager to put themselves out there.
“Even the Democratic party takes our vote for granted,” she says, “and that’s why I really seldom do party canvassing.”
Besides, she’s found that her own approach — no address list, no clipboard, no party talking points— is much more effective for encouraging voter engagement than the carefully curated canvassing strategy used by most political campaigns. In the neighborhoods she’s usually visiting, people tend to move around a lot, so she says traditional voter contact lists are obsolete.
“In fact, last weekend I was working off of one of those lists,” Castillo said. “We visited I think it was 58 right in this area, too, and out of the 58, two people had not moved. That’s it.”
Also along for the walk last Saturday was Paul Janampa, who lives in Nashua. He tries to approach canvassing the same way he does his work for the city’s welfare department: meeting people where they are, and listening closely when they share their concerns.
“A lot of folks here feel that our voices are not heard, non-white, basically, populations’ voices are not heard,” Janampa said.
This voter outreach doesn’t end when the polls open, though. Community activists trying to empower New Hampshire’s Latino voters will also be on standby to help people navigate other barriers that come up at the polls on Nov. 3, like the pushback Janampa says he ran into when updating his voter registration in New Hampshire just last year.
“The first time I did it, they were asking me for my documentation, my passport, my citizenship information,” he said. “I didn’t know I had [to have] that. I am a citizen, I don’t have to bring proof to that. Like, if I’m stopped by the police, I don’t have to show that.”
All New Hampshire voters are asked to prove their citizenship, age, identity and domicile when registering. But New Hampshire law is clear: If someone doesn’t have the right paperwork when registering to vote, they shouldn’t be sent away; they can sign a form, instead. Janampa says he wasn’t given that option.
“If I didn’t have time to go back and bring that information, if I didn’t know that, that would have discouraged me from voting," he said.
Castillo says some voting wards, like the one at Beech Street School in Manchester, are really good about helping new citizens exercise their voting rights or generally being more patient with people who have trouble speaking English.
But she says that’s not the case everywhere. And it frustrates her that the state’s political establishment hasn’t done more to help immigrants feel more welcome in all polling places.
"You go to the Secretary of State," she said, "and they say you’re less than 5 percent [of the population], so I don’t need to."
She doesn’t spend too much time dwelling on this, though. Not when there are more voters to talk to.
“But that’s why we keep going,” she said, before breaking into song as she continued down the sidewalk.
“We just keep on moving forward, keep on moving forward, keep on moving forward,” she continued. “Never turning back, never turning back…”