Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are the country’s fastest-growing voter bloc, but the group has long faced cultural and systemic hurdles to civic participation.
The group ismore likely than the general population to vote via absentee ballot, but they also experience higher than average mail-in ballot rejection rates, according to a report on constituents in California. Experts say it applies to the AAPI population nationwide as well.
The AAPI electorate faces myriad challenges to absentee voting, including language barriers, cultural differences and confusing election laws, said Daniel Jeon, a voting rights attorney at the nonprofit Asian Americans Advancing Justice - Los Angeles (Advancing Justice-LA).
“When there are additional little hurdles you have to jump over, it makes it hard to want to vote,” Jeon said, adding that minority-language speakers already have trouble understanding policies and identifying candidates on their ballots.
In some Asian cultures, for example, people identify themselves by their last name first. Those unfamiliar with Western naming conventions have gotten their ballots thrown out because their signatures didn’t match their registration name.
New policies are helping combat the issue in some states. After voting rights groups sued Georgia in 2018 for its “exact match” policy, which disproportionately harmed language minority groups, the state now requires county officials to give voters a chance to fix signature discrepancies within three days of the election. Only 17 other states provide a similar correction process. Elsewhere, returned or rejected ballots have discouraged Asian American voters, Jeon said.
What groups are doing to help voters
To help people navigate these obstacles, AAAJ established a six-language helpline and equipped polling places in Asian communities with bilingual staff and translated resources.
As the pandemic kept people indoors, advocates say, requests for absentee ballots have soared. Over the past year, grassroots organizations across the country have invested copious resources to tackle mailing barriers and increase turnout among groups in under-resourced areas. These efforts, as election night approaches, have yielded positive results.
“We have seen tremendous involvement this year from the South Asian community in general,” said Anjali Enjeti, the Georgia chapter co-founder of They See Blue, a Democratic national coalition focused on mobilizing the South Asian electorate.
Encouraging absentee voting is also a way to combat the state’s voter suppression tactics, Enjeti said, though it requires “arming members of the community with as many voting resources as possible.”
Organizers use WhatsApp to share updates about how ballots should be filled out and submitted, along with relevant information on voter roll purges and the consolidation of polling sites. They’ve also trained poll workers and staffed an in-language helpline to assist first time in-person voters. With the election less than a week away, chapter members are individually calling 3,000 constituents to urge them to drop off their ballots at county dropboxes instead of mailing them in.
They See Blue’s voter mobilization campaign also highlights issues that directly affect the South Asian diaspora, like the Trump administration’s hard-line immigration policies, assault on Obamacare, mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic and use of xenophobic rhetoric. When Georgia Sen. David Perdue appeared to mock Sen. Kamala Harris’ name at a state rally, the incident became a heated discussion on the group’s social media pages.
The Chicago-based National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum has been following up with AAPI women who requested mail-in ballots in five swing states: Illinois, Arizona, Florida, Indiana and Georgia. In 2018, nearly 90 percent of Asian women said they believed the stakes were too high to not vote, but a third reported facing barriers when doing so, according to a new survey released by the organization.
“We’ve been trying to consistently combat misinformation and check on people as they requested ballots to make sure they received them or that they went through,” said national field director Vivien Tsou, who added that canvassers have made more than 26,000 calls this year.
Dozens of phone bankers with the women's forum, who speak 15 languages altogether, have contacted each registered voter three to five times to notify them about changing deadlines and provide technical support. Recently in Indiana, they helped several constituents submit new ballot requests after their initial applications were ignored. In Georgia, a group of core organizers taught volunteers to correctly fill out ballots so they could train members in their community.
In Minnesota, home to the country’s largest Hmong diaspora, the Asian American Organizing Project has been educating younger constituents about absentee voting through youth-centered multimedia campaigns.
“Because of Covid-19, we had to switch to online engagement and organizing,” said executive director Linda Her. This month, organizers held a lively one-hour Facebook tutorial on the ballot completion process.
The group’s civic engagement campaign is built around “relationship organizing,” Her said. Younger members were trained to translate voting materials for family and friends who don’t speak English well, and to help them identify ballots from a deluge of other campaign mailers. Over the next few days, they’ll be phone banking community members to ensure their ballots are submitted or postmarked before Monday.
Efforts like these can significantly lower mailing barriers and raise overall turnout from the AAPI electorate, said Christine Chen, executive director at the nonpartisan organization Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote.
She also noted that the tumultuous events of the past year — the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter protests and the wildfires in the west — have driven more people to civic engagement. “The only way we are able to even staff the hotline for several weeks live,” she said, “is because we have more volunteers who are willing to sign up and assist.”
But the fight for visibility doesn’t end on Nov. 3, she said, adding, “It’s really about making sure we are represented and our voices about policy decisions are heard.”
Read more from NBC Asian America's election series "Shift."