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Asian-American, Pacific Islander Groups Work to Get Out Vote as Election Nears

In 2012, roughly three in five eligible AAPI voters were registered to vote and one in two reported actually heading to the polls on Election Day.
A woman votes at a polling station at St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Monterey Park, Los Angeles County
Voters cast ballots in Los Angeles County in California on November 6, 2012.Frederic J. Brown / AFP/Getty Images

With just two weeks to go before the general election, community nonprofits have been hard at work making sure Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) voters head to the polls on Nov. 8.

From phone banks to door knocking, from festivals to townhalls, nonpartisan organizations serving AAPI communities across the country are leaving nothing to chance, voter outreach workers tell NBC News. And it’s not just the presidential contest that is driving these efforts. The results of local, state, and federal elections, they say, also matter since they stand to shape the political landscape in coming years.

To that end, the AAPI electorate, which accounts for roughly five percent of voters nationwide, could make a difference in battleground states, including Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. Depending on turnout, they could also end up being the margin of victory in some states for either Republican nominee Donald Trump or Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, according to Karthick Ramakrishnan, a public policy professor at the University of California.

And with all 435 House seats up for grabs, AAPIs might tip the results of elections in 103 congressional districts, in which they account for at least five percent of the electorate. That includes Washington’s 7th District, a race between Indian-American Pramila Jayapal and Brady Walkinshaw, both Democrats, and Illinois’ 8th District, with Indian-American Raja Krishnamoorthi facing off against Republican Pete DiCianni.

Krishnamoorthi and DiCianni are vying for the seat held by Asian-American U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Il), who is running for Senate.

“It looks like this will probably be a record year in terms of AAPIs getting elected to Congress, and particularly in the South Asian community,” Ramakrishnan told NBC News.

Image: Chinese Americans vote in San Franciscos Chinatown
A new AARP report finds the economic health of Asian Americans age 65 and older to be much worse than the general US population of the same age. LOU DEMATTEIS / REUTERS

But while voter outreach workers and volunteers say the fiery political rhetoric of this campaign season has spurred many AAPIs to register to vote, apathy still exists among others who feel their votes might not matter.

Both major parties and the candidates’ campaigns have been making efforts to win over AAPIs, realizing that the fastest growing racial group in the U.S. could help decide elections across the country.

RELATED: Asian-American Population Surges, But Voter Turnout Still Lacks

Having seen AAPI support steadily wane since the 1992 presidential election, when 55 percent of Asians voted for former President George H. W. Bush, the GOP last year launched its Republican Leadership Initiative, designed to recruit and train grassroots organizers in AAPI communities. In July, the Trump campaign also formed an Asian Pacific American (APA) advisory committee, which met for the first time a day before the third and final debate in Las Vegas.

Presumptive Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump meeting with members of Chinese Americans for Trump on June 3 in Beverly Hills, California.
Presumptive Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump meeting with members of Chinese Americans for Trump on June 3 in Beverly Hills, California.Courtesy of Tian Wang

Some members of Trump’s APA advisory committee, including Chinese Americans for Trump founder Tian (David) Wang and Asian Action Network president Herman Martir, told NBC News they’ve been knocking on doors and handing out literature about Trump and the GOP in swing states like Nevada, Virginia, and Pennsylvania.

NBC News reached out multiple times by phone and email to the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee for additional information on AAPI voter outreach efforts as Election Day nears, but did not receive a response.

RELATED: Clinton Holds 41-Point Lead Over Trump Among Asian-American Voters: Survey

Hillary Clinton’s campaign told NBC News that the Democratic nominee is not taking a single vote for granted — even as she enjoys solid support among Asian-American registered voters, leading Trump by 41 points, according to a report released in October.

“The only poll that matters to us is the one on November 8,” said Jason Tengco, Clinton’s AAPI outreach director.

Tengco said Clinton’s team has been shoring up the AAPI base in Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, which running mate Tim Kaine represents in the U.S. Senate. All of these are or were battleground states, some of them with local races that can go either way.

In addition to door knocking and phone banking, Clinton’s campaign has deployed celebrity surrogates like actress Constance Wu and comedian Margaret Cho, along with U.S. Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA), to help register AAPIs at Las Vegas’s Chinatown Plaza to vote, Tengco said.

Her campaign has also been publicizing locations in Las Vegas where voters can cast ballots early, including at Seafood City Market, an Asian supermarket, and Chinatown Plaza, Tengco said. AAPIs make up almost nine percent of eligible voters in Clark County, according to APIAVote, which includes Las Vegas.

Meanwhile, Clinton volunteers from New York and New Jersey, two blue states, have been trekking on weekends to the battleground state of Pennsylvania to reach out to AAPI voters, Tengco said.

Volunteers bus from New York and New Jersey to Pennsylvania to stump for Hillary Clinton .
Volunteers bus from New York and New Jersey to Pennsylvania to stump for Hillary Clinton .Courtesy of the Office of Grace Meng

In mid October, U.S. Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY) and 35 others took a bus from New York to Philadelphia, a city where nearly five percent of the eligible electorate is AAPI. Volunteers went door-to-door speaking with voters not just about the presidential election, but also about federal contests, Tengco said, including the close Senate race between Democrat Katie McGinty and incumbent Republican Pat Toomey.

To gain control of the Senate, Democrats would have to win four seats if they take the White House (because the vice president gets to break a 50-50 tie) and five seats if they don't.

In Ohio, Tengco said Clinton’s campaign has been using bilingual speakers and voter lists broken down by AAPI language to target specific voters. And in the DC, Maryland and Virginia area, AAPI for Hillary groups have been hosting phone banks and canvassing for votes, he added. Efforts have focused particularly on northern Virginia, given its diverse AAPI population, including Koreans, Vietnamese, and Indians, among others, he said.

“The challenge has always been getting people to understand that they have a right to vote, that you’re not going to be intimidated as a result of it.”

But Ramakrishnan, the public policy professor, said both parties are not doing enough to reach out to AAPIs — a demographic, he noted, that is less likely to be contacted by either Democrats or Republicans. And while community organizations are trying to pick up the slack, Ramakrishnan said they are outmatched compared to the parties and campaigns in terms of resources at their disposal.

“Historically, foundations have not invested nearly as much in AAPI voter education and outreach as they have in other communities of color,” Ramakrishnan said.

That underinvestment, he said, stems from a lack of awareness of AAPI communities among foundation program officers. Other contributing factors include perceptions that the AAPI community is not large enough and that it doesn’t need assistance because AAPIs are highly educated and have high incomes, a reflection of the model minority myth, Ramakrishnan said.

A Community Effort

In spite of this, nonpartisan community groups across the U.S. have been making an all-out effort to meet with AAPIs, register new voters, and stress the importance of casting ballots on Election Day. Voter outreach workers say they hope for an improvement over the last presidential election in 2012, when roughly three in five eligible Asian-American voters were registered to vote, according to the U.S. Census, and one in two reported actually heading to the polls on Election Day.

Looking to help beef up those numbers, nonprofit APIAVote in Ohio partnered in late September with the Vietnamese Student Association at The Ohio State University in Columbus to sign up new voters, Tina Maharath, APIAVote Ohio field fellow, told NBC News.

But voting can be a tough sell for millennials, she said.

That day, Maharath said they registered six people since most of the 80 who attended were already signed up. One way she said she tries to motivate Southeast Asians is by reminding them that some of their ancestors came to America by way of refugee camps and may not have had the opportunity to register to vote.

“I have to drill it down to where it gets them deep in the heart,” Maharath said. “Otherwise, they won’t even pay any attention to me.”

A lack of interest in politics is another obstacle for outreach workers like Maharath. In Ohio, part of the problem on the local level, she said, is that candidates don’t mention AAPIs in their speeches and generally don’t do enough to engage AAPI voters.

From 2008 to 2012, the number of eligible AAPI voters grew in Ohio by 18.6 percent, according to APIAVote.

“It really brings me down when I’m trying to get them in the political process,” she said.

Out in the West, efforts in Utah have also been underway to turn out the state’s Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander electorate on Election Day. While Asians make up just 2.5 percent of Utah’s total population, according to the Census, the proportion of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders living in Salt Lake City — the state capital — is larger than any other city in the continental U.S., according to the Utah Department of Health.

Lavinia Taumoepeau-Latu, director of civic engagement for the National Tongan American Society (NTAS), a Utah nonprofit, told NBC News her organization has been creating a space to discuss issues important to the state’s Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander community, including healthcare, education, and racial profiling in schools.

During the last couple of months, NTAS helped organize a town hall with candidates for local office and filmed public service announcements in the Tongan, Samoan, and English languages with Pacific Islanders discussing the importance of voting, Taumoepeau-Latu said. In August, NTAS also hosted the Friendly Island Tongan Festival, a three-day event now in its twentieth year that was attended by 1,200 people.

The group signed up around 100 new voters, while local candidates set up campaign booths to meet face-to-face with members of the Pacific Islander community, Taumoepeau-Latu said.

At the end of October, NTAS will also conduct phone banking to follow up with registered voters and may also hold training on how to read a ballot, she said.

But despite the group’s best efforts, Taumoepeau-Latu added, challenges still remain.

“When we deal with our communities, it’s a little bit different because a lot of them have voter apathy, a lot of them don’t really understand the whole process of getting civically engaged,” she said. “Some of them have been here for a long time, which makes it really difficult to explain how important their voice matters.”

Voter outreach groups in Texas tell a similar story.

“The challenge has always been getting people to understand that they have a right to vote, that you’re not going to be intimidated as a result of it,” Deborah Chen, director of civic engagement of OCA-Greater Houston, told NBC News.

Home to the country’s third-largest Asian-American population, according to the Census, the Lone Star State has taken center stage in recent election law battles. Those include an unsuccessful effort to count only citizens, and not the total population, in drawing up state legislative districts, as well as a federal court ruling barring Texas from requiring that interpreters be registered voters in the same county where they’re providing help.

“Because of all the crazy rhetoric that’s been going on in the national presidential races, it’s made it easier for us to talk about why it’s so important to go vote.”

Texas, which also has one of the strictest voter ID laws nationwide, is appealing the ruling.

“We’re hopeful that the counties will comply with the court order,” Chen said. “We’ve done a lot to try and educate the community that it’s your right to bring whoever you want to go vote to help you.”

Like nonprofits in other states, OCA-Greater Houston has attended community events, festivals, and galas to sign up new voters, Chen said. One of the organization’s partners has also visited mosques to register Muslims to vote, she said.

Early voting began in Houston on Oct. 24, Chen said, and OCA-Greater Houston already sent out mailers reminding voters to ensure their information is correct. Volunteers will phone bank during the two weeks of early voting, and on Election Day OCA-Greater Houston will help the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) conduct exit surveys at six-to-eight polling sites with AAPI populations, Chen said.

In talking with voters in Houston, a city of 2.2 million in Harris County where nearly six percent of eligible voters are AAPI, Chen said she’s encountered a mix of attitudes toward this year’s election. Some are motivated to vote because of the “crazy rhetoric” on the national level, she said. Some are driven by a fear of what might happen after the election.

“Other people are just like they don’t want anything to do with American politics because they think the whole system is messed up,” she added.

But there is something of a silver lining, Chen said.

“Because of all the crazy rhetoric that’s been going on in the national presidential races, it’s made it easier for us to talk about why it’s so important to go vote,” she said.

It remains to be seen how the efforts of the candidates, parties, and nonprofits will sway AAPI voter turnout in this year’s election. Historically, the AAPI rate has been significantly below the national average, Ramakrishnan said.

Looking ahead, Ramakrishnan added that outreach from the major parties and candidates could have the biggest impact on improving AAPI voter turnout, because they’re the ones with the resources.

“But then the next step would be to invest more heavily in these nonpartisan efforts, and that’s where foundations are responsible,” he said, adding, “I would not let the foundations off the hook, because they traditionally have not prioritized these communities.”

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