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Asian American swing state early and absentee voting increased 300%, more than any other group

Community advocates credit heavy investment in intergenerational organizing, local census operations and efforts to combat misinformation.
A supporter holds a national flag of India as she attends a watch party of President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris in Miami on Nov. 7.Chandan Khanna / AFP - Getty Images

Early and absentee voting among Asian America and Pacific Islanders in swing states increased significantly this year thanks to in-person, online and text message efforts.

In the 13 most contested presidential battleground states, AAPI early and absentee voting rose nearly 300 percent from 2016 — the fastest growth rate among all racial groups — according to the data firm Catalist. The roughly 1 million early ballots cast surpassed the group’s total 2016 turnout by 21 percent, a separate report from the data firm TargetSmart says.

In states like Georgia, Arizona and Pennsylvania, the surge in AAPI early voting surpassed President-elect Joe Biden’s razor-thin margins of victory. Heavy investment in intergenerational organizing, local census operations and efforts to combat misinformation all contributed to the record turnout from the country’s fastest-growing electorate, experts said.

“For the last four to five years, there’s been a concerted effort from AAPI groups to develop state-specific mobilization strategies,” Christine Chen, executive director at Asian Pacific Islander American Vote (APIAVote), told NBC Asian America. “We’ve seen a dramatic increase in AAPIs engaging in different issues, participating in rallies and running for office.”

Voter mobilization campaigns got a boost this year, Chen said, as the census count coincided with a presidential election — an overlap that only happens every two decades.

Organizers in Michigan said pre-pandemic Census operations provided them the infrastructure to register record numbers of low-propensity voters. While conducting the count, they were able to gauge the language needs of constituents, recruit bilingual phone-bankers and host community building events to foster political participation. Social service and cultural groups also switched gears to engage with canvassing work.

“It opened opportunities to not only encourage census completion but to learn more about the needs of individuals in those communities,” Richard Mui, the president of APIAVote-Michigan, said during a recent panel on AAPI voter turnout. “There was an easy transition to get-out-the-vote work because of the relationships that were built.”

In Georgia, groups like Asian American Advancing Justice-Atlanta focused on fact-checking election misinformation, which proliferated on Asian messaging apps like WeChat and KakaoTalk, the group's executive director, Stephanie Cho, said during the panel. She added that broader efforts to expand language access, like the state’s decision to provide voting materials in Korean, could boost turnout in the two Senate runoffs on Jan. 5.

Ultimately, Cho said, it’s the rise in young and first-time voters, politicized by current events, that transformed this year’s election, in which early votes exceeded total 2016 turnout by 59 percent. “We have a powerful new electorate — this combination of Gen Z, Millennial, Gen X voters has helped a lot,” she said.

The extraordinary circumstances surrounding this year’s contest led to turnout spikes from certain demographics of voters.

In North Carolina, where Indians comprise one-quarter of a rapidly growing Asian population, South Asian women inspired by Vice President-elect Kamala Harris led a 30 percent surge in early voting, said Chavi Koneru, the co-founder and executive director of North Carolina Asian Americans Together.

“The level of engagement and excitement was really high among the women, much higher than among men,” she told NBC Asian America, noting that Harris represented unprecedented opportunities for their children. “We feel that we can tell our daughters that it’s possible. We can relate to this experience.”

But organizers might have mobilized even more voters had both parties made a stronger outreach effort, Koneru said. Like in 2016, some ethnic groups fell through the cracks due to a lack of in-language mailers and targeted messaging. Also like in 2016, Asian Americans reported more contact from Republicans than Democrats. “Anecdotally, I can say the Southeast community was not contacted as much, the Hmong community was left out,” she said. There were gaps within groups too, she added: Among South Asians, Indians were courted at a much higher rate than Pakistanis.

The persistent lack of outreach from presidential candidates is one reason some AAPI nonprofits have restructured to become 501(c)4 entities that can engage in direct political action to educate and mobilize constituents, said Chen of APIAVote. In doing so, they’re also building a leadership pipeline to boost AAPI political representation. “You’re seeing the evolution,” she said. “Year after year, we see more nonprofits engage in this work in a more substantive manner.”

While record early turnout this year is encouraging, the sense of urgency that drove many people to the polls — caused by extraordinary factors like Trump’s anti-Asian rhetoric, the timing of the census, and the economy-crushing pandemic — may be difficult to replicate in future elections. To ensure that elected officials at all levels of government care about AAPI issues, it’s incumbent on community groups to convert constituents into lifelong voters, said Chanda Parbhoo, founder of the Texas-based South Asian Americans for Voter Education Engagement and Empowerment.

“The takeaway is that we need to have early investment within our communities, and we need to be there 365 days a year,” she said during the panel. “We need to be a community that’s always heard.”