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Armies of Volunteers Try to 'Swing' Ohio With Immigrant Vote

A sunflower bows its head in the rain next to a few stalks of old corn. The community garden is wet and overgrown with weeds, now that autumn is settling in. It sits in the middle of Wedgewood Village, a sprawling low-income apartment complex in Columbus, Ohio, that houses a mix of Kenyan, South African and Somali immigrants.

It wasn't always a garden. The land used to hold the complex swimming pool. But Betula Musa's Muslim faith would never allow her to swim in public. And she knew her African neighbors would welcome the opportunity to work the ground with their hands to grow vegetables like back in their home countries. So she led the effort to transform the pool into gardens.

Now, she's trying to transform her neighbors into voters. At age 17, the Kenya native cannot vote herself in this election. But Musa joins three women going door to door in the complex, with its hundreds of apartments, to register new voters.

'Girl, why don't you want to vote?'

"As-salāmu alaykum," the women issue a traditional Muslim greeting as a neighbor opens the door. "Are you a citizen?"

A young woman, her hair covered with a scarf, speaks to Musa quietly.

Musa exclaims, "You're 20! Girl, why don't you want to vote?"

At another door, a volunteer is disappointed by the voter apathy. "What if you’re the one person who doesn’t vote, and Donald Trump becomes president?"

But few people open the door. Some of those who do say they've already registered.

Volunteer Zerqa Abid knows the next challenge will be transportation for early voting days. That's one obstacle she can overcome. "On October 29 and 30," she explains to a single mother, "we will bring transportation buses, and we will distribute fliers."

Only one person signs the clipboard. Yerrow Abdikadir of Somalia won't be voting for the first time. He is re-registering because he recently moved. He knows who he will choose in the presidential election. "The female is better than the male," Abdikadir tells VOA.

The women canvass five buildings in one hour. Each has three floors, and each of those has four apartments. Many doors, and prospective voters, remain.

At the local mosque, men greet other men as they enter the main door. Women talk to other women carrying babies on their hips as they enter the side door for prayer.

Jamal Ali emigrated to Ohio from Somalia in 1997, when Bill Clinton was president. "It's my right so I'm going to vote," says Ali.

During the Friday prayer sermon, Dr. Mouhamed Tarazi urges others to register. "Voting amounts to give a testimony," he says. "And we Muslims are required to give testimony when called forth."

Bread for votes

Lisa Wong sits at a small red-skirted table inside an Asian mall in Cleveland,Ohio. An oversized monkey statue stands guard nearby, signifying the Year of the Monkey on the Chinese Zodiac calendar. Fortune cookies are scattered on the table.

"Are you registered to vote?" she calls to shoppers. One man stops to update his address. Otherwise, her day is slow.

Richard Exner is the data analysis expert at the news site He says Ohio's immigrant communities have not been large enough to measure for outcomes in year's past.

But, "the Asian community has taken off in a couple sections of Ohio. It’s still small but it has grown quickly in Columbus and Cincinnati," he reports. Because it is still small, he does not expect to see the candidates driving up the immigration vote. Not this election cycle.

On the other side of town, the wind whips the signs off the front of a table that say "Register to vote here!" Another sign says "Voter Registration Drive Thru" and a translation in Spanish under it. The lure to the booth is long, crusty loaves of bread in white wrappers that are handed out to those who registered.

Juan Molina Crespo, executive director of the Hispanic Alliance, says the group registered 70 voters in the morning. "But by noon we ran out of bread and had to make another run to the local Spanish bakery for more."

Showing up to vote is a crucial issue in the Hispanic community. Puerto Rican Gilbert Ruiz served on SABE, the Spanish Advisory Board for the Electorate.

Cuyahoga Country, which includes the city of Cleveland, established the bilingual board to get out the vote to Hispanics with limited English abilities.

Ruiz says Puerto Ricans have an active political community and traditionally come out to vote "in droves" for local issues in Puerto Rico. But in the United States, he says immigrants don't connect with the candidates and expect a quid pro quo as in Puerto Rican politics, where citizens vote for candidates who promise them something.

"It's been crazy hard to get people to vote this election," says Ruiz, "but we're in a good position in this county to swing our state."

How to swing a battleground state

Last year's Ohio population estimates from the census bureau show Hispanics as the largest ethnic group at 3.6 percent, followed by Asians at 2.1 percent. Africans are not broken out separately from a comprehensive "black or African American" designation. There is no breakout of Middle Eastern descent.

Herb Asher is a professor emeritus at Ohio State University who's written numerous books on the American political system. He doesn't downplay those numbers.

"It's not a huge amount, but if elections can be decided by, say, 10,000, 20,000, a hundred-thousand votes, then every group could be very significant," he says.

Ohio has traditionally picked the president, year after year. In fact, it has the longest winning streak of any state in the U.S. The Buckeye State, named for the state tree, has only been wrong in 1944 and 1960.

Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump were nearly tied in many Ohio polls until earlier this week. A poll on Wednesday by Baldwin Wallace University shows Clinton with a sizeable 9 percent lead over Trump.

Exner says that's just history proving what every Ohioan knows: "Ohio is a bellwether again. As polls showed Clinton's support growing nationally, they tracked up in Ohio at the same time."

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    Carolyn Presutti

    Carolyn Presutti is an Emmy and Silver World Medal award winning television correspondent who works out of VOA’s Washington headquarters. She has also won numerous Associated Press TV, Radio, and Multimedia awards, as well as a Clarion for her TV coverage of The Syrian Medical Crisis, Haiti, The Boston Marathon Bombing, Presidential Politics, The Southern Economy, Google Glass & Other Wearables, and the 9/11 Anniversary.

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