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California Votes: This ‘Overlooked’ Group Could Determine the Clinton-Sanders Race

Image: voting in Fresno, Calif.

Asian-American voters could play a pivotal role in California's 2016 presidential primary, considering that they make up around 11 percent of the state's electorate. MARK CROSSE / The Fresno Bee via AP

As California heads into what some are predicting to be a close Democratic primary, Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community organizations in the Golden State have been busy pushing AAPI voters to head to the polls on Tuesday. One group is also planning to visit voting sites in central California to ensure language assistance is available to voters with limited English proficiency.

This comes as Hillary Clinton secured a majority of delegates, with a combination of pledged and unpledged "superdelegates," to become the presumptive nominee of the Democratic party, according to an NBC News tally Monday.

Kelly Osajima, voter engagement manager of Asian Americans Advancing Justice - Los Angeles, told NBC News that her organization has partnered with 20 AAPI groups to reach out in 10 Asian and Pacific Islander languages — including Chinese, Tagalog, and Vietnamese — to infrequent voters who live in Los Angeles and Orange County.

As part of the Your Vote Matters 2016 nonpartisan campaign, Osajima said more than 150 bilingual volunteers have made 32,000 phone calls since May 11 and have spoken with 5,000 AAPI voters, a group that she said is often overlooked by mainstream campaigns.

"These are the voters who don't get the phone calls from the Democratic or Republican candidate campaigns," Osajima said. "Their doors don't get knocked on. They don't get mailers."

RELATED: Enthusiasm High Among Young Asian Americans, But Outreach Is Low

But on Tuesday, AAPI voters could play a pivotal role in California's primary, considering that they make up around 11 percent of the state's electorate. California allows voters who are not registered with a party to cast ballots in what's called a modified closed presidential primary, which the Democratic, American Independent, and Libertarian parties have agreed to this year.

This opens up those primaries to the 35 percent of AAPI voters without a party affiliation.

Image: U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton holds up the hand of congresswoman Doris Matsui during a campaign stop in Sacramento, California
U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton holds up the hand of congresswoman Doris Matsui during a campaign stop in Sacramento, California, United States June 5, 2016. MIKE BLAKE / Reuters

That could make a difference as Clinton and Democratic candidate Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders head into a tight primary race Tuesday. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll released last Wednesday showed Clinton leading Sanders 49 percent to 47 percent among likely California Democratic primary voters, which is within the survey's margin of error. But Sanders had a slight edge among a wider electorate of all potential Democratic voters in the state, earning 48 percent of support to Clinton's 47 percent.

For Asian-American voters, one report released last month by nonpartisan advocacy groups found that Clinton was viewed favorably by 62 percent of those surveyed, compared to 48 percent for Sanders. While 12 percent said they had never heard of or had no opinion or Clinton, 30 percent said the same about Sanders.

But a Field Poll of likely California voters published at the start of the month gave the Asian-American advantage to Sanders, reporting that 47 percent preferred the Vermont senator and 34 percent Clinton, with 19 percent still undecided.

RELATED: Nurses Union Confident in Sanders Headed into California Primary

Image: Bernie Sanders Campaigns In SF Bay Area One Day Before California Primary
Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) addresses a crowd, estimated at more than 10,000 people, during a campaign rally at Chrissy Field in the Presidio on June 6, 2016 in San Francisco, California. Scott Olson / Getty Images

Just last week, Clinton picked up endorsements from the the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC) Leadership Political Action Committee and the AAPI Victory Fund. Members of CAPAC Leadership PAC said in a statement that Clinton's support for immigration reform, expanding healthcare access, and improving education were among the reasons why AAPIs should vote for the former secretary of state.

Dilawar Syed, co-founder and vice chair of the AAPI Victory Fund, a super PAC launched in January that can raise unlimited funds but cannot coordinate directly with campaigns or give money to federal candidates, said in a statement last week that it was backing Clinton because she "has strongly advocated for issues of importance to AAPI families, ranging from environmental justice to gun control."

RELATED: Asian-American Voters Tip Toward Dems Headed into 2016 Election: Study

In response to the CAPAC Leadership PAC endorsement, Republican National Committee Asian Pacific American press secretary Ninio Fetalvo said in a statement that "another endorsement from the beltway establishment certainly won't earn the trust of the Asian American grassroots across the country."

Sanders' campaign did not immediately return requests from NBC News for comment about both endorsements.

A Sanders win in the California primary, one of five to be held on Tuesday along with North Dakota's Democratic caucus, could give the Vermont senator a reason to stay in the race as the candidates move closer to the Democratic convention in July. Sanders' campaign Monday accused media organizations of rushing to judgement by declaring Clinton the presumptive Democratic nominee, saying unpledged superdelegates could still change their minds before they vote on July 25.

Timmy Lu, state organizing director of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN), a nonprofit based in Oakland, California, told NBC News that this year's race has generated a lot of interest among California's AAPI communities.

"I think some of the rhetoric that's coming out that can be, frankly, racist or xenophobic or Islamophobic has been really challenging community members in the AAPI community," Lu said. "I think what you're seeing since 2012 is, across the board, there's a great surge in voter registration in California, and I think that's particularly the case in the AAPI communities as well."

Since April, Lu said APEN has had around 12,000 phone conversations with AAPI voters in the Bay Area and throughout California, reminding them to vote. He said they've also knocked on a few hundred doors in Richmond, a city with a large Southeast Asian community about nine miles northwest of Berkeley, and Oakland, which has a large Chinese population.

In addition to the presidential primaries, Californians will vote Tuesday in local, state, and federal primaries and on one state and dozens of local ballot measures, depending on their county of residence. To that end, APEN summarized and translated the ballot measures, which cover a range of issues including affordable housing and school districts issuing bonds. Those translations were included in guides mailed out to voters and are also available by email, Lu said.

"We're finding out that voters do not have a lot of information about ballot initiatives, and the information that they do have can be very confusing," he added.

RELATED: Can This New App Help More Asian Americans Vote in 2016?

Meanwhile, Asian Americans Advancing Justice - Asian Law Caucus, a nonprofit legal and civil rights organization in San Francisco, is planning to send monitors to polling sites in two central California counties Tuesday. They will observe whether the sites are complying with voter laws and see if language assistance is available to those who need it, according to Jonathan Stein, manager of the caucus' voting rights program.

Stein declined to name which counties his organization would visit, but for the general election, he told NBC News that Advancing Justice - Asian Law Caucus would dispatch poll monitors to 18 counties.

"This is the voter enfranchise challenge we face in California, whereas in other states you're talking about voter ID laws and purges of voters and roll backs of voters," he said.

Language assistance at California polling sites was crucial for AAPI voters during the 2008 election, when President Barack Obama defeated Republican Arizona Sen. John McCain. In Los Angeles County, for instance, three in five Korean voters, one in two Vietnamese, and nearly a third of Filipino and Chinese used some form of help in their native languages when casting a ballot, according to the Asian Pacific American Legal Center.

All but two of California's 58 counties — Alpine in the Sierra Nevada and Trinity in the northwest — are required by federal or state law to provide ballot translations and make good-faith efforts to recruit bilingual poll workers in at least one of nine languages, according to a 2013 memo from California's secretary of state. These requirements remain in effect until Dec. 31, 2017.

San Diego and Alameda counties have both entered into agreements with the federal government guaranteeing that they employ translators and interpreters and provide voter materials, including ballots and instructions, in languages other than English. For San Diego, the languages are Spanish and Tagalog; and for Alameda County, Spanish and Chinese.

From now until the general election in November, Stein said Advancing Justice - Asian Law Caucus will work with civil rights organizations in California to distribute lists of best practices in language access to county elections offices. He added that they will also help connect AAPI minority-language communities with county elections offices.

"We want to begin to build those relationship in the months before November so that we can avoid problems on Election Day itself," Stein said.

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