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Asian American voter rates in Georgia hit record high. How voting bill threatens progress.

The state's new restrictive voting bill is particularly alarming after Asian Americans experienced an 84 percent vote gain from 2016 to 2020, critics say.
Image: Early Voting Begins In Georgia
Voters line up outside of State Farm Arena, Georgia's largest early voting location, for the first day of early voting in the general election in Atlanta, on Oct. 12, 2020.Jessica McGowan / Getty Images file

While new data shows Asian Americans had record turnout in Georgia in the last election, a new law that restricts voting in the state threatens their participation in the political process, particularly at a time when they also have the highest rates of absentee voting, critics say.

The new legislation, passed with the overwhelming support of Republicans in the state Legislature last week, adds restrictions to absentee and early voting, among other forms of balloting. Critics say the law could disproportionately affect communities of color, including Asian Americans, whose voting population already confronts significant barriers to civic engagement.

The bill, activists say, is particularly alarming in light of a recent analysis by the policy nonprofit AAPI Data on turnout in battleground states that showed a historic 84 percent vote gain in Georgia by Asian Americans from 2016 to 2020 — a result, in part, of aggressive community outreach.

“Voters of color, including Asian American voters, have shown their electoral power in Georgia,” Phi Nguyen, litigation director for Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta told NBC Asian American. “And now some elected leaders want to try to suppress those voices rather than be accountable to a diverse, multiracial, multiethnic electorate.”

Critics said that the bill — which was fast tracked through the state House and Senate and signed by Republican Gov. Brian Kemp in just over an hour — was passed without public notice to advocates or voters. The sweeping legislation criminalizes "line warming," the practice of offering food and water to voters waiting to vote, and allows the Georgia Legislature to take power from local boards of election.

In regards to absentee and early voting, the earliest date a voter can request a ballot is 11 weeks ahead of an election, less than half the time before the law. And the deadline to complete the ballots has been moved up as well. Both requesting and returning ballots requires identification, such as a driver's license number, state ID number or a copy of an acceptable voter ID.

The restrictions on absentee voting, Nguyen said, are particularly concerning given that Asian Americans voted by mail at the highest rate compared to all other racial groups in the general election. Voting data from November showed that in 13 of the most contested battleground states, including Georgia, AAPI early and absentee voting rose almost 300 percent from 2016.

Nguyen further pointed out that any laws that make voting more challenging have a particularly amplified impact on those who are limited English proficient, or people who have difficulty communicating in English. The Asian American population has some of the highest rates of limited English proficiency. And according to Pew Research, Asian Americans are the only group made up of a majority of naturalized immigrants, who account for two-thirds of the electorate.

With a high immigrant population, Asian Americans face barriers beyond just language, Karthick Ramakrishnan, associate dean of the University of California Riverside School of Public Policy and founder of AAPI Data, said. Because the majority of the electorate is foreign born, most Asian Americans most likely did not grow up in a Democrat or Republican household, he said. For those who were able to get college degrees, they probably attended universities in their home country, which influenced their knowledge of the political process.

“What that means is that the political awakening and consciousness and even information about where the party stands on issues and where candidates stand on issues — the barriers are pretty high beyond the language barriers,” he said. “You combine that with the fact that parties and candidates traditionally have not reached out to them. It's asking a lot for someone to make a decision when they don't have all that background information, and no one is reaching out to them.”

Given the added work that is required by immigrants to seek out this information, Nguyen noted that “they are more likely to give up or feel intimidated in the face of additional hurdles or hoops.”

Within the Asian American community, those who tend to vote at higher rates also tend to be more proficient in English, and have higher incomes and higher education, Ramakrishnan said. Many are also homeowners as opposed to renters. Voter suppression laws, he said, would result in a distorted representation of the Asian American population.

“All of these factors matter. … They disproportionately hurt populations that are lower income, lower education, renters, younger people,” he said. “You get a skew in terms of communities of color less likely to be represented. Even within those communities you will get a class skew and an age skew in terms of who has a voice.”

However, research shows that Georgia, which had been red for decades, was able to beat back many of these barriers. The preliminary analysis shows that the Asian American and Pacific Islander population in the state had a gain of 61,000 votes. The same gains were not observed in all states, as some, including New York and Hawaii, experienced a decrease in Asian American votes. New York had a loss of 7 percent, or 16,000 votes, while Hawaii experienced a 13 percent decrease, amounting to roughly 27,000 Asian American votes.

Previous polling revealed that not only was Georgia’s Asian American electorate particularly active during this past election cycle, but its first-time voters made a significant difference. The state’s 7th Congressional District, an area that has historically voted Republican, swung to blue in part because of Asian American first-time voters. According to an election eve poll released by the AAPI Civic Engagement Fund, Asian Americans strongly favored Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux, making up 150 percent of her winning margin. Two of 5 Asian Americans in the district were first-time voters.

Part of the electorate’s growth and power can be explained by the state’s own population increase. But Ramakrishnan notes that a great deal of the gains can also be attributed to the aggressive organizing work in the state that people, including Stacey Abrams, put forth in marginalized communities.

Abrams’ outreach to Asian Americans preceded the recent election cycle and stretches back more than a decade. Organizers and leaders in the state recall how she would regularly show up to AAPI events and, as the state's House minority leader from 2011 to 2017, appear on Radio Korea to inform the state’s Korean population of what was going on under the Gold Dome, for example.

Linh Nguyen, the executive director of RUN AAPI who previously served as AAPI coalition director of the Georgia Democrats, said that it has mattered that there are leaders in Georgia like Abrams who have “been investing and recognizing the power of AAPI for years — visibility and acknowledging our complicated identity goes a long way.” She explained that, among other factors, recruiting a team that reflects its AAPI population and giving it resources to execute the right community engagement program is key to expanding the electorate.

“We had a paid AAPI team in the runoff and was given a real budget, a first for me,” Linh Nguyen, a longtime organizer, said, referring to the two U.S. Senate runoffs won by Democrats in January.

With the barriers that Asian Americans were up against, she said her team always made the effort to translate all campaign materials. Their outreach included information on several aspects of the election, from candidates’ talking points, to instructions on how to request and drop off an absentee ballot, where to find the polling location, and how to find a translator.

“All of that organizing work made it competitive, which then meant a ton of dollars flowing into Georgia,” Ramakrishnan said.

Ultimately, people should be pushing for more ways to make voting easier and pull more people toward civic engagement, Ramakrishnan said, adding that even if lawmakers are genuinely concerned about voter fraud, it occurs far more infrequently than voter suppression, of which there are widespread examples.

Previous research suggests that there is little to no voter fraud and a Harvard study on double voting, one of the most frequently cited examples of fraud, suggests that it’s “not currently carried out in such a systematic way that it presents a threat to the integrity of American elections.”

“This is a serious reminder of how important political and civic education is for our most vulnerable communities," Linh Nguyen said. "Voter suppression is also an act of violence, and the ways that it will manifest are endless."

With several organizations filing lawsuits against the state, she said that Asian American organizers and others are “not going down without a fight."

"They’re already fighting back — without a choice — even when they’re exhausted and aren’t afforded time to process or rest after tragedy, they’ll still fight back," Linh Nguyen said.