Emails and flyers relating to early voting starting March 2, 2020, in Chicagoland, are coming fast and furious from the office of Shobhana Johri Verma, director of South Asian Outreach at the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners.
She is reaching out to Indian-Americans and other South Asians who are eligible to vote in the primaries on March 17, and general elections Nov. 3. Early voting for the primaries started March 2. Johri Verma spoke to Desi Talk at length about her experience building the outreach to South Asians over the last 6 years since she joined the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners.
“A lot of people do not realize what it takes to run an election behind the scenes. For us, its several busy months before the actual day,” Johri Verma told Desi Talk.
As the director of South Asian Outreach, Johri Verma has been reaching out to eligible South Asian voters and administering the delivery of language accessibility materials as spelled out in Section 203 of the Federal Voting Rights Act, after the 2010 U.S. Census which indicated that Chicago had to offer services to ‘Asian Indians’ eligible to vote based on their numbers.
“It’s been challenging and exhilarating to get to know my own community. One thinks one can just go out and get everyone to engage but that’s not the case,” said Johri Verma who has over the years, built close connections to different constituencies within the South Asian communities, from high school and college students to libraries, faith based centers and organizations of every stripe serving this population. She also helps recruit bilingual election judges (poll workers), promote voter registration, increase voter turnout, to name some tasks.
“One of the primary roles for me was to see that this (language) assistance was provided in all the materials including signage, voting instructions, etc., anything in English had to be prepared in Hindi,” Johri Verma explained. “So thousands and thousands of words were written, making sure they met all the legal parameters in the Hindi translation.”
Combine that with the number of precincts that had to be served, and Johri Verma’s task becomes immensely impressive.
Chicago has 50 wards and each ward has precincts, 2,069 in total. Of those 2,069, some 56 precincts have been identified as having a higher concentration of South Asian voters, where language access has to be provided. Plus, apart from touch screen ballots, which also include ones in Hindi, voters have to be provided or have access to paper ballots if they so desire in the 56 precincts identified.
An extremely important part of Johri Verma’s success in engaging more Indian-Americans in the electoral process, is recruiting 400-500 bilingual poll-workers, who then go back into the communities after the elections with these new experiences. And currently, there are some 125 South Asian poll workers covering the 56 precincts, a huge change from just 10 or so when the program began in 2014.
“It has helped increase the level of engagement of the community,” she said, emphasizing that this was her conclusion from anecdotal evidence based on her close interaction with Indian-Americans and South Asian voters. “As a government agency, we cannot by law track the ethnicity of the voters.”
Also, a large number of South Asian students are getting exposed early to the voting system. “More than 25 percent of my poll workers are now high school students, who already have civics studies as part of their curriculum and here they get civics in action,” she said.
“The earlier you start with this education, the better,” Johri Verma contended. These high school and college students, “become ambassadors for us, and it has helped me reach parents and grandparents to get engaged in the electoral process.”
She recounts anecdotes from her interactions. When the language access initiative started and she began actively seeking out Indian-American communities, “I could see people had not had such discussions before and would look at me wondering what I am talking about and why. Now, I can see their comfort-level and the questions they ask – like what’s on the ballot, what are the referendums,”
Johri Verma has taken significant initiatives. One of them is expanding the communities to be served. “My feedback to the Board of Elections related to changing our outreach, from ‘Asian Indians’ alone to South Asian outreach based on our own experiences. The Board accepted it and that has given me the opportunity to work with the broader community.”
Having people who understand Hindi, Urdu, and Gujarati at the polling stations has helped bring people to the polls …when people know there is someone there to help them. “A lot of it is because of the aggressive outreach,” Johri Verma said.
Just last week, she was with a group, including seniors, and some newcomers, explaining to them the machinery, plus giving a crash course on the whole electoral system and the importance of civic engagement, she said.
Johri Verma is originally from Uttar Pradesh and came to the United States in 2002. She has two Masters in Women’s, Gender and Equality Studies from the University of Cincinnati and from Lucknow University. She is credited with building one of the first and most effective South Asian voter engagement programs at the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners.