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Bee Nguyen sets her sights higher in Georgia

The Democrat from Atlanta has worked to expand voter access in the state House. If elected secretary of state, she would be the first Asian American to hold statewide office in Georgia.
Image: State Rep. Bee Nguyen
State Rep. Bee Nguyen has emerged as a leader in the fight against voter suppression.Kevin Lowery

In the past six months, Georgia has become the ultimate battleground state, where Democrats secured control of both the presidency and the U.S. Senate, and Republican-led efforts to restrict voting are now being replicated across the country.

During this time, state Rep. Bee Nguyen, a Democrat from Atlanta, emerged as a leader in the fight against voter suppression. In December, as then-President Donald Trump was ramping up his campaign to challenge the state’s election results, she put together a now-viral presentation that methodically knocked down the claim that thousands of ballots were cast by out-of-state voters.

Now, Nguyen, 39, has launched a bid for secretary of state, joining an already competitive race a year and a half before the election.

Her candidacy comes at a fraught moment for Georgia’s rapidly growing Asian American and Pacific Islander community. Record turnout from the group helped propel President Joe Biden to victory. But in March, the Republican-controlled Legislature passed a bill adding restrictions to absentee and early voting — a move that critics say could disproportionately affect Asian American constituents, who voted by mail at the highest rate among all racial groups. That same month, a white gunman shot up three Atlanta-area spas, leaving eight people dead, including six women of Asian descent. 

As a daughter of Vietnamese refugees, Nguyen is seeking to become the first Asian American to hold a statewide office in Georgia. To do so, she'll have to win her party's primary and then unseat Georgia’s most popular Republican: Brad Raffensperger, who earned bipartisan respect after resisting Trump’s demands to alter the outcome of the state’s presidential vote. (That, of course, depends on Raffensperger winning his primary; he's being challenged by U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, a Trump ally. No date has been set for either primary.)

A week after announcing her bid, Nguyen spoke with NBC Asian America about the significance of her campaign for the AAPI community and her plans to expand voter access if she becomes Georgia’s top election official.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

NBC Asian America: Why are you entering the race for secretary of state? 

Bee Nguyen: I started thinking about it at the end of last year, around the time we held hearings in the state House, [in which Republican lawmakers invited Trump campaign operatives to share evidence of voter fraud]. We were being subjected to misinformation and conspiracy theories and lies. And my Republican colleagues allowed them to go unchecked. Then watching everything that unfolded on Jan. 6 just made me realize how dangerously close we were to overthrowing our democracy. I felt like it’s my responsibility and duty to step up.

What are your thoughts on Raffensperger, who many see as a hero for defying Trump’s demands to overturn Georgia’s election results?

Nguyen: The current secretary of state upheld the law, and I, along with many Georgians, breathed a sigh of relief when we saw that he upheld the law. But at the same time, he supports these voter suppression policies and continues to state his allegiance to the former president. Quite frankly, after what happened on Jan. 6, stating that allegiance is unacceptable. I think Georgians have a better choice. They deserve better. They can have someone who has a history of advocating for the right to vote. What’s most disappointing is that the current secretary of state has said, over and over again, that there was no election fraud, that we had the most secure election in the state of Georgia — yet here he is, supporting a bill that makes it harder for Georgians to vote and criminalizes handing a bottle of water to somebody waiting in line.

You’ve said one of your proudest accomplishments was repealing the “exact match” voter registration law, which froze 53,000 applications applications during the 2018 midterm elections. Why?

Nguyen: This law was passed when Stacey Abrams was my House representative, and I distinctly remember her speaking about it on the House floor. She said this bill, if passed, would impact disproportionately Black and brown voters. And that ended up being true. It’s a policy based on clerical errors. It’s not the voters themselves who are misspelling their names. Whoever is inputting their names into a system might switch two letters by accident. If your native language is English, the human eye is just not trained to read non-Anglo names in the same way. As a result, we saw this policy impacted 80 percent of Black, brown and Latinx voters. 

Bee Nguyen poses in front of a mural of John Lewis.Kevin Lowery

It’s something I really understood because people misspell my last name so often. The “n” and “y” in my last name, for example, are constantly switched. When I was elected, the General Assembly spelled my name on our state website in three different places in three different ways. It just illustrated to me how flawed this policy is and I spent a lot of time trying to overturn it.

If elected, how would you represent Asian Americans, a group that’s experienced so much trauma this past year?

Nguyen: The shooting that occurred in Atlanta was an extremely painful time. It still evokes a lot of emotions. I met one of the victims’ daughters, and looking at her, I saw myself. The former leader with the most power in our entire country gave permission for Americans to dehumanize Asian people living in this country, and as a result we have seen this rise in hate crimes. I understand the nuances in the needs that AAPI people have in our state, and not addressing those needs hurts the economy and public health outcomes. I think it’s important to continue to ensure that we build upon the diverse coalition in Georgia and that AAPI representation is a part of that.

Asian Americans face unique cultural and language barriers to voting. How would you address them?

Nguyen: Being able to have conversations with people, understanding language and culture barriers, is very important. It’s not just specific to elections. When we created a Covid-19 hotline, I called the governor's floor leader last year and said we need multiple languages because everyone is impacted by this virus. It’s the same with introducing a state 911 mandatory language translation component for reporting emergencies. The portal to request an absentee ballot, too, should be translated into other languages. The same goes for any information about cleaning up our voter rolls.

What kind of changes would you make to protect the voting rights of Georgians?

Nguyen: The three things that are most important are equity, efficiency and accessibility when it comes to all divisions, including elections. Part of that is ensuring that people who don’t speak English have in-language access to resources that the secretary of state provides, not just related to elections but also to small businesses and licenses. 

As secretary of state, I would also work collaboratively with our 159 local election boards to equip them with better training and better resources. I would come to the table when they’re facing challenges. Our current secretary of state is notorious for attacking metro Atlanta election boards, especially Fulton County. Leadership is not about deflecting responsibility. It’s about building partnerships. In the past local election officials have been hesitant to testify in some of our election hearings because they were afraid the secretary of state would be punitive, and that’s not the kind of leadership we need in Georgia.