Georgia Special Election Shines Light on Asian-American Voters

Image: Republican candidate Karen Handel and Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff prepare for Georgia's 6th Congressional District special election debate at WSB-TV studios in Atlanta

Republican candidate Karen Handel and Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff prepare for Georgia's 6th Congressional District special election debate at WSB-TV studios in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S. June 6, 2017. CHRISTOPHER ALUKA BERRY / Reuters

Before the U.S. presidential election last November, software engineer Suresh Kolichala wasn’t too interested in politics.

He’d voted in previous elections and enjoyed listening to NPR, but he couldn’t name the member of Congress representing him and his city of Johns Creek, a northeastern suburb of Atlanta, Georgia, and he’d never donated to a political campaign, he told NBC News. The results of the election changed the way he thought about civic participation.

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“I’ve been living in America for years and have always had a great deal of respect for the Constitution and this country’s system of checks and balances,” Kolichala, who emigrated to the U.S. from India in 1992, said. “But the fact that we elected a president who has this anti-immigrant rhetoric and hateful supporters made me ashamed to be American. I felt like I had to get up and do something.”

Kolichala wouldn’t have to wait long before getting involved. After then Republican Rep. Tom Price vacated his seat to join President Donald Trump’s administration as secretary of health and human services in February, Kolichala began volunteering with a campaign during the ensuing special election, phone banking and canvasing houses.

His efforts are leading up to the scheduled June 20 runoff election in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District between Republican Karen Handel and Democrat Jon Ossoff. The 6th District, which covers northern Atlanta neighborhoods and sections of Cobb, DeKalb, and Fulton counties, has been a steady Republican stronghold since 1979.

Based on the district’s demographic makeup, Asian-American residents like Kolichala could play a major role in determining the final winner. While there are approximately 420,000 Asian Americans living in Georgia — roughly 4.2 percent of the state’s total population, according to the U.S. Census bureau — Asian Americans make up more than 10 percent of the 6th District.

Certain subsections of the district are also known for their high concentration of Asian Americans, including Johns Creek, where approximately a quarter of the city’s population identifies as Asian.

“Generally what attracts a lot of first generation Asian Americans to the area are the good school districts,” Sam Park, a Georgia state legislator and current Asian outreach director for Ossoff’s campaign, told NBC News. The son of Korean immigrants, Park grew up in the 6th District.

“If you look at the northern end, we have some of the best schools, from Walton High School in Marietta to Chattahoochee High School in Johns Creek, where I attended,” he said. “We’ve seen a trend of Asians moving out of the city of Atlanta and into the northern suburbs to send their kids to the best educational institutions."

Jon Ossoff meets with Asian-American voters at a community event. Courtesy of Long Tran

Both Handel and Ossoff have attended events hosted by volunteers and community organizations in May to celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.

Ossoff appeared at an Asian-American outreach block party held on Mother’s Day to meet voters and take pictures. Handel was a guest at the Indian Friends of America Awards Ceremony on May 20. Last Saturday, Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY) joined Ossoff in Atlanta on behalf of his campaign to push a canvassing effort specifically targeted at Asian voters.

Some individuals have also volunteered on behalf of the campaigns.

Lani Wong, the chairperson of the National Association of Chinese Americans, turned her 70th birthday party into a political rally for Ossoff — who made an appearance — and requested her friends donate money to various PACs in lieu of birthday gifts. More than 120 people showed up at her house, she said.

“You can feel this energy throughout the neighborhood,” Wong, who has resided in the city of Dunwoody since 1977, told NBC News. “Some Asian Americans here have been apathetic in the past because they feel like their voices don’t count, but in this election, our vote might be the one to make a difference. There’s this hope that didn’t exist before.”

Image: Karen Handel campaigns in Marietta, Georgia, USA.
Republican US House of Representatives candidate Karen Handel (C) participates in a 'Get Out The Vote' rally at a restaurant in Marietta, Georgia, USA, 10 June 2017. ERIK S. LESSER / EPA

The candidates’ campaigns have also worked to reach out to Asian-American voters that have felt ignored by the political process in the past.

Former Republican state senate candidate Garry Guan has been coordinating grassroots efforts for Handel’s campaign within the Chinese-American community, and the campaign has recognized the need to accommodate Asian immigrant voters’ language preferences.

“It is not uncommon for us to get requests from newly naturalized citizens [Guan] is working with in Mandarin,” Handel campaign spokesperson Kate Constantini told NBC News. “We have field representatives that have installed Mandarin translation software specifically to be able to work with these volunteers and voters in our district.”

Asian Americans Advancing Justice — Atlanta, a civil rights nonprofit, has also been working both on the ground and in the courts to educate and empower voters.

The organization was a co-plaintiff in a lawsuit against a Georgia law that would allow voters to cast a ballot in a runoff election only if they had registered 30 days before the initial election, a full 90 days before the runoff. On May 4, a federal judge issued an injunction to extend the voter registration deadline to May 21. According to Advancing Justice’s preliminary reports, since the original voter registration deadline on March 20, an additional 5,500 voters were registered.

“This was an instrumental victory because voter registration policies that restrict the right to vote, or make it more difficult to vote, disproportionately affect people of color, and that includes Asian Americans,” Advancing Justice – Atlanta program associate Raymond Partolan told NBC News.

“When you consider Asian Americans, African Americans, and Latinos in the 6th District, we comprise 25 percent of the total electorate,” Partolan added. “We’ve been telling people at the door that if one of every two voters of color turned out to vote, we could be the deciding factor in this election.”

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