Getting Iranian-Americans to Vote: Neda Bolourchi’s Self-Assigned Mission

By Peyman Pejman

September 11, 2001 started out as a calm day for Neda Bolourchi in Los Angeles. The skies were clear, and the temperature was pleasant. But it was not to last.

Bolourchi’s mother, who had been visiting her sister in Boston, happened to be on board United Airlines Flight 175 destined for Los Angeles. Bolourchi and her father were getting ready to go to the airport when they received a frantic call from a family friend. “He said, ‘Turn on the TV. Something has happened in New York,’” Bolourchi recalled in an interview with Kayhan London.

At first, Bolourchi was not excessively concerned: her mother was flying from Boston, so the tragedy unfolding in New York did not concern her. But she soon found out otherwise. Tragically, her mother was one of the 3,000 or so innocent lives lost on that fateful day as their planes were hijacked and crashed.

About a month later, a friend suggested that she do something with the tragedy that had killed her mother. “But I did not know what.” That soon changed, and her personal experience of 9/11 proved to be the beginning of her life as a political and social activist.

“When you’ve had a loss like I had, it pushes you to find meaning and purpose for yourself. Activism is something that is inside of you,” she said of her newly-found conviction. “My mother’s death changed my personality a bit. It awoke something in me.”

Also, Bolourchi’s mother “was a very strong woman and I think, with her passing, some of her strength just got transferred to me.”

Her first foray into activism was in 2008 when she became a poll worker for the campaign of then-Senator Barack Obama. The political process had piqued her interest, so she started working as a poll inspector for Los Angeles County, where she lived. That’s when she noticed how few registered Iranian-Americans were going to the polling booths.

“What I was hearing was that everyone kept saying, ‘Who cares? Why should I vote? This is America. This is their problem.’ There was a lot of feeling of apathy.” By her own estimate (which she acknowledges is only an educated guess), only one percent of Iranian-Americans in California had registered to vote.

Whatever the real numbers, Bolourchi decided to campaign to encourage more Iranian-Americans to participate in the electoral process of their adopted country.

While there are no credible studies to prove that poor language skills are a major cause of the low turnout of Iranian-Americans at polling booths, Bolourchi decided that providing electoral information in Farsi was bound to generate interest.

Today, Bolourchi has taken her activism to another level: she has established, her pride and joy.

“With my website, I am not just giving you information about the next election but teaching people, so much more: who is supporting a measure, who is behind the campaign, what is the measure about. [I am teaching Iranian-Americans] terminology, introducing them to books on the issue, videos on the subject,” Bolourchi said.

Her goal with the website is three-fold.

First is to extend the Iranian-American community’s participation in the electoral process, nationally and locally. To that end, she has equipped her website with translation software that, basically, provides all information in both English and Farsi.

“Even if lack of participation is not directly linked to language, it goes without question that the more information you provide the electorate, the more enthusiastic they become towards the process,” she explains.

As an appetizer, for example, her website offers sample ballot booklets – approved by Los Angeles County – in Farsi. She says that she goes the extra mile to be both transparent about who she is and who is behind the site, as well as offer citation and sourcing for all information on the site.

Second is to turn the website into a one-stop-shop for any Iranian-American running for any kind of elected office in the country.

“In 2017, I want to reach out to any Iranian-American who wants to be a candidate, to feature them on my site and let them introduce themselves. They will have a page to their own on the site. I always see on Facebook or somewhere else that some Iranian is running for something, but there is no central place to go.”

Finally, she wants her website to be relevant to anyone who speaks Farsi or some variant of it.

“My goal is to reach out to other people who speak Farsi, not just Iranian-Americans – Afghans, Turks, Armenians – reach out to more diverse people. No Iranian has ever done this. There is nothing like this website anywhere in the country.”