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Shake-up at the polls

Cambodian voters are making themselves heard in Lowell

By Milton J. Valencia
Globe Staff / June 12, 2011

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LOWELL — Sovanna Pouv fondly remembers the 2007 ceremony at Fenway Park in which he became a US citizen. Former President Bush, who appeared via a large monitor, said, “Welcome.’’

Pouv, who was born in a refugee camp in Thailand where his mother fled to escape genocide in her native Cambodia, voted for the first time the following year — something he had long wanted to do.

“It was the best thing I could do, because I can choose my leaders and have a voice,’’ said the 30-year-old, who is an administrator at the United Teen Equality Center, a community group that promotes get-out-the-vote drives.

Cambodians who fled the possibility of death in their native country three decades ago and settled in Lowell make up a quarter of the city’s roughly 106,000 residents and form the second-largest Cambodian community in the United States. In recent years, efforts in Lowell to register, educate, and mobilize this large local voting bloc have increased. Thanks to a combination of these get-out-the-vote efforts and the emergence of more Cambodian-Americans running for office, more people in this group are participating in elections.

Lowell community organizers say they have seen a 40 percent boost in the number of Cambodian-Americans voting since get-out-the-vote efforts began less than a decade ago. In the 2009 municipal election, more than 13,400 voters cast a ballot, compared with more than 12,600 in the 2005 municipal election, said Gail Cenik, manager of the city’s Election and Census Commission, who attributes the jump in part to the increase in Cambodian-American voting.

“The community itself is getting quite politically active,’’ Cenik said.

Organizers say more Cambodian-Americans are at least in part deciding to register to vote because they see more people on the ballot who look like them. Total voter registration climbed to more than 52,300 as of May 1, compared with more than 45,600 in 1999, the year Cambodian-American Rithy Uong became the first elected official of Cambodian descent in the country after winning a City Council seat, according to the city Election and Census Commission.

At least two Cambodian-Americans are expected to run for council seats, hoping to be the first on the panel since Uong resigned in 2005. One of them, Van Pech, has already publicly announced his candidacy. And Cambodian-American Sam Meas ran as a Republican last year to challenge US Representative Niki Tsongas for the Fifth Congressional District, but lost in the primary.

“He really got a lot of people motivated to take part in the election,’’ Cenik said. “Even when he didn’t win in the primary, he got a lot of people to vote.’’

Efforts by community groups are also fueling increased voter registration and turnout. One Lowell, a social service agency working with other community organizations, had 679 Cambodians sworn in as US citizens during a program it ran from 2006 to 2009. As part of the program, the group reached out to Cambodian-Americans and their children and helped them initiate and complete the application to become US citizens, according to executive director Jessica Wilson.

The Lowell Cambodian Voting Project, formed in 2005, resurrects itself each election cycle to promote voter awareness, said Bunsong Suo, a founder, who added that the group plans to start passing out voter registration forms and other informational material at community events. The group also plans to hold political forums in the summer before the fall elections.

Suo said his agency conducted a study in partnership with the University of Massachusetts Lowell and found that in 1997 only 250 of the thousands of Cambodian-Americans in the city cast their ballots. Of that number, only 75 actually voted. By 2005, the group had increased voter rolls to include 2,700 Cambodian-Americans, Suo said.

“I cannot wait to see the results when we plan to conduct our study again six years since 2005,’’ said Suo, whose family also escaped the Khmer Rouge regime, and arrived in Lowell more than 20 years ago.

The group also has initiated City Shapers, a leadership class designed to train immigrants and refugees to successfully run for office or seek positions on local boards or commissions. “We need to have an active Cambodian community, as far as playing a role in the city,’’ Suo said.

Another group, the United Teen Equality Center, reaches out to community members at events and encourages them to register. The group was also part of a movement last year to reduce the voting age in local elections to 17, to encourage voting among teenagers. That effort failed.

Pouv, who has climbed the ladder to building arts and design coordinator at the teen center, first started working with community agencies as a teen to avoid the gang wars between Latinos and Southeast Asians in the 1990s.

Pouv arrived in the United States when he was a toddler. He said he and his mother found a network of fellow Cambodian-Americans in Lowell, after moving from Chicago. The elders in the community recognized each other as fellow refugees, but they never spoke of the pains they faced in Cambodia. Instead, he said, they worked to start new lives.

“There’s a large Cambodian community in Lowell, but there should be a large number of Cambodian voters, as well,’’ said Pouv, who is working to help his mother, and others, obtain US citizenship.

Milton Valencia can be reached at mvalencia@globe.com.