Ever since she came to live in the United States in 2007, Frederick resident Jin Wan has been waiting for the day when she could cast a vote and help select the next American president.
Born in China, Wan was still working on getting her citizenship in 2008, so she could only watch from the sidelines as thousands of Americans headed for the polls to make history by electing Barack Obama as the nation’s first black president.
Now that she is an American citizen, Wan is determined to take part in that process this time.
“I am very excited,” said the 36-year-old mother of two who earned her citizenship in 2010. “I followed (the 2008 election) but not like this time. This time I really have a chance to vote.”
But if it wasn’t for the help of her tutor at the Literacy Council of Frederick County, Wan would not know where to start, how to register as a voter and how to educate herself before the election.
Wan has never voted in an election before. She never cast a ballot in China, where a multilayered election system allows voters to choose only local representatives, with the selection of the highest leaders chosen in a series of representative elections.
“It is a different system,” Wan said. “Here it really feels like everyone can participate.”
Nationally, Wan is one of thousands of immigrants who have been naturalized since the last presidential election and will be eligible to vote on Nov. 6.
Since 2008, the Baltimore office of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has naturalized more than 88,000 new citizens in Maryland, according to Daniel Gosgrove, a spokesman for the agency. The agency does not collect immigration information by county.
Nationally, there have been 6.6 million citizens naturalized over the past decade, Cosgrove said.
Exercising their newly acquired right to vote is not so simple for new American citizens, especially when they are still polishing their English skills and trying to understand the voting system and government in the United States.
That’s why the county literacy council — a nonprofit organization that provides free language tutoring for English learners and helps them become active community members — often has to help its students navigate the election process.
“We want them to really integrate into the community,” said Diana Helleman, a volunteer coordinator at the council.
Serving 120 to 125 students, the majority of whom are immigrants, the council helps people from all over the world, including places where they are not used to participating in a democratic election process, Helleman said.
That is especially true for students coming from Iran, Syria and Pakistan, whose numbers have increased in recent years, Helleman said.
But even immigrants who are used to voting can get confused by the U.S. election process, especially when it comes to local issues such as the proposal to switch to charter government in Frederick County, Helleman said.
So tutors at the council try to explain the function of Congress and school boards as they discuss the rules of grammar and punctuation.
Two of the literacy council students this year have received their first voter registration and have been working with their tutors to educate themselves before the election.
In the weeks leading up to the election, Wan and her tutor Susan Birch studied the differences between Democrats and Republicans, and learned about the different candidates and their positions.
Birch now plans to get voter guides and go over the seven state referendum questions that will appear on the ballot.
“I will get a sample ballot, and we will go over it together,” Birch said.
Because Wan was nervous to go vote on her own, she and Birch are planning to vote early together.
The council’s other freshly naturalized citizen, Roxana Flores, is also eager to make her debut at the polls.
A native of El Salvador, Flores came to the United States in 1999 to join her husband — a naturalized citizen. But because of her weak English skills, she has been nervous about applying for citizenship.
But thanks to the help of council tutor Freida Pryor, Flores was able to build her confidence and take her citizenship exam this summer.
Flores passed with flying colors and became naturalized the same day on July 24.
“I was so excited,” said Flores, who lives in Frederick with her husband and two boys. “I immediately sent in my voter registration.”
Since then, Flores has been educating herself on the candidates in the election and how they relate to her concerns as a citizen.
As a mother with two children in county public schools, Flores is worried about cuts to school programs. So she went online and researched the Frederick County Board of Education candidates who seemed least likely to support cuts in education.
As far for the presidential election, Flores did not have to do extra research. Given his support for education, health care reforms and his personal charisma, Barack Obama is Flores’ choice, she said.
And she believes Obama deserves another four years to fix the economy.
“It is not fast, but it is hard work,” Flores said. “Slowly, he is trying to fix it all.”