Call me by my name: Voting in Mississippi (as a naturalized citizen)

There’s a lot I can say about being an immigrant in Mississippi, but I’ll focus on something small for now.

One of the major things new immigrants have to deal with in Mississippi is that people don’t get our names. I can’t speak to other communities, such as people from the Middle East or India, or African immigrants who live here, Afro-Latinxs, and Asians, but those of us hailing from Latin American countries probably have Spanish naming customs: first name, middle name, paternal last name, and maternal last name.

I remember when voter ID was approved in Mississippi and I predicted that Mississippi poll workers wouldn’t know what to do about people who have two different last names, such as myself. I had noticed this issue come up when filling out tax forms for employers, official documents, or insurance information.

This year, I fought hard to renew my driver’s license. A process that should’ve been simple, but took me about three weeks to solve. You can read about that here. (<<—- Podes leer la versión de esto en español también).

One thing the DPS did improve is that I was finally able to add both of my last names to my driver’s license because their computer system finally allowed it. For the first time, my name on my Mississippi driver’s license matched all my other official documents.

I voted in the state primary elections on my birthday, August 6 and had no problems. However, I had a small issue come up during the general state elections this 5th November.

The person searching for me wasn’t sure how to find me in the state’s system. Thankfully, she was very kind and called over two other poll workers, who eventually figured out that they’d need to search for me differently because I have two last names. I also explained I voted in the primary and there were no problems then.

It took about 10 minutes to sort this out. I know this sounds like a small nuisance, but the reality is that all Mississippi government employees need to receive basic training on naming customs of various immigrant communities that are growing and contributing to this state.

I’m unsure about whether or not there are rules for how county clerks or the DPS take down the names of people with two last names. I can see this problem affecting women who decide to hyphenate their names instead of changing them altogether once they marry.

Many voting booths are understaffed as it is. The state has the ability to come up with guidelines for all its state agencies to ensure that these clerical errors don’t deter us from obtaining services or exercising our right to vote. In addition to creating a more inclusive environment, state employees would save time because they will anticipate this problem as a part of their job.

The extra 10 minutes or so it took for local poll workers to help me also caused delays for others behind and could have been easily avoided.

Again, I want to clarify that the electoral staff where I was were gracious about this. I know that with Mississippi’s history, things could’ve turned out differently.

A few tips for newly naturalized citizens:

  • Always vote during the primary. One way I was able to get help faster was that there were no problems when I voted in August.
  • If you move, make sure you always update your voter registration information.
  • Keep your voter registration card in a safe place.
  • If your country has a naming custom that is different from that in Mississippi (US names are usually just a first and last name, or first name, middle name, and last name), get to the polls earlier and assume the poll worker there hasn’t been trained.
  • Stay calm, but familiarize yourself with voter assistance hotlines and have their numbers saved on your phone in case you need help.

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