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Immigration Beat: Volunteer Honored for Helping New Citizens Register to Vote

This article originally appeared in the Star Tribune.

By Mila Koumpilova

Judy Stuthman is the person behind the voter registrations of 62,000 newly minted U.S. citizens.

In 1997, Stuthman spearheaded an effort by the Minnesota League of Women Voters to register new Americans at the very first opportunity: during their naturalization ceremonies. Volunteers now attend all 40 to 60 ceremonies statewide each year, where they offer up registration forms, instructions and contagious enthusiasm for the privileges of citizenship.

Recently, the National Association of Secretaries of State gave Stuthman its Medallion Award, and the league is looking to copy her work nationally.

“We firmly believe that when you encourage people to be civically engaged,” said Stuthman, 74, “you build a better community for everyone.”

She says she could not have done it without a team of some 150 volunteers she’s assembled.

At first, Stuthman and other volunteers simply handed out forms after the ceremonies. But for the past decade, they have offered the citizens-to-be guidance on filling out forms and a plug for registering.

About 80 percent of participants turn in those forms. Many of them, Stuthman points out, come from war-torn or authoritarian countries where they never had a vote. Once, the son of a 101-year-old Hmong woman told Stuthman how excited she was to vote for the first time.

Because league volunteers are a friendly presence, they sometimes become informal liaisons between participants and judges. They made sure a young Somali woman who arrived with an IV in her arm got sworn in early so she could return to the hospital where she had given birth hours earlier. At least twice, they’ve asked judges to swear in women in labor early so they can head to the delivery room.

“Judy has created a climate of engagement at these ceremonies,” said Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, who presented Stuthman with her award. “People really understand citizenship comes with responsibilities.”