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ELECTIONS '96

Voting With Vigor : New Citizens, Many Opposed to Prop. 209, Eagerly Cast Ballots

November 06, 1996|KEN ELLINGWOOD and PETER Y. HONG | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

They arrived in resolute ones and twos, rippling with newly earned electoral muscle if puzzled about poking all those little holes. Some were spiffy in their Sunday best, toting cameras to capture what in many ways was their real arrival in the United States.

On a day when many of their apathy-struck fellow Americans were staying away from the polls in droves, Southern California's newest citizens--whose ranks reached a record level this year--showed up at the polls with a refreshing eagerness. Churches hummed Tuesday with the energy of campaign headquarters as activists pushed the third step of a novel campaign this year to get new citizens naturalized, registered and to the polls.

Many new voters interviewed at polling places around Los Angeles County said they hoped to defeat Proposition 209, which would end state affirmative action programs based on race and gender.

"If they cut these benefits, a lot of people won't be able to go to college," said first-time voter Jose Morales, an Eagle Rock resident whose daughter attends Cal State L.A. "A lot of minorities, we live here . . . we contribute to this country. It's a country of immigrants."

Morales and his wife, Lupe, got quick pointers on using the ballot punch card and then plunged into adjacent voting booths, referring at times to a Spanish-language newspaper with a rundown of the ballot questions. Morales said he was "grateful" to be able to vote for President Clinton--"He has a Kennedy mentality"--and seemed to find suspense in the presidential contest that pollsters had written off. The race was not, he insisted, a foregone conclusion.

"In Mexico nobody cares" about that country's presidential election, said Morales, who moved from the Mexican state of Durango in 1973. "They already know who's going to be president."

The citizenship and voter drives came partly in response to Proposition 187, the 1994 ballot measure that would deny many public services to illegal immigrants. The possibility of cutbacks in federal aid for immigrants who live in the United States legally but are not citizens and Proposition 209 added additional incentives for citizenship, said Bill Crowe, a leader of the effort to sign up new citizens to vote.

Fears of efforts to intimidate newly registered voters did not materialize. Volunteers from a San Fernando Valley advocacy group monitored polling sites in several neighborhoods but reported no trouble.

Organizers of the voter mobilization took over local churches, as returns showed a sagging overall turnout around the county. Parish offices at the venerable St. Agnes Catholic Church in South-Central Los Angeles assumed a frenzied air as volunteers ushered voters to the polls and steered them through the often baffling process.

"To have a voice in this society, we Latinos must vote," said Justo Venegas, a 55-year-old machine operator from Mexico who proudly wore his "I Voted" sticker.

Said Blanca Pereira, a 47-year-old mother of two, originally from El Salvador: "We're here to stay in this country now, and we must work to be part of its system." Pereira said she was taken aback by the complicated California ballot. Back home, she said, voting was a question of placing an "X" in the box of the desired party.

In other neighborhoods, balloting bore a more ceremonial air.

At the Monterey Park Christian Center, in a city where more than half of residents are of Asian descent, elderly Chinese American men arrived for their first American election wearing dark suits. Women wore sharply pressed skirts.

For many new Chinese American citizens, Tuesday marked not only their first U.S. presidential election, but their first chance to vote for president of any country--since China is Communist, Hong Kong is a British colony and Taiwan only recently democratized. You Wen Huang, 76, beamed as he strolled out of the voting booth, dapper in a black fedora and with an American flag pin on his lapel.

When a news photographer snapped a picture of him, Huang offered his own camera and posed before an American flag by the church door. A retired pediatrician from Beijing, Huang waved away offers to interpret for him, choosing to speak with a reporter in the language of his new homeland.

"It is my first time voting," he said in English. "I became a citizen last year."

UCLA students Cathy Cheng and Eddie Hsu, who polled Asian American voters outside the balloting site, said many of the senior citizens sharply criticized Proposition 209 while filling out the exit poll.

Cheng, a new citizen who said she was still undecided between Clinton and Dole, said Proposition 209 also was the most important ballot item for her. "One thing I value about UCLA is its diversity. It would destroy that and everything we've worked for," said Cheng, 21, a senior majoring in business economics.

In Baldwin Park, where activists said 700 new citizens have been sworn in this year, retired factory worker Luis Ortiz was looking forward to casting his first vote. He became a citizen in July.

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