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How Asian American 1st-time voters who helped flip GOP district are mobilizing for Georgia runoff

In the 7th Congressional District, Asian Americans strongly favored Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux, making up 150 percent of her winning margin.
Image: Jon Ossoff, Raphael Warnock
Democratic Senate candidates Raphael Warnock, left, and Jon Ossoff gesture toward a crowd during a campaign rally on Nov. 15, 2020, in Marietta, Ga.Brynn Anderson / AP file

Ann Le, who's Vietnamese American, said the past four years was a wakeup call. Le, a resident of Gwinnett County, Georgia, who had never voted before, said she couldn't afford to miss the most recent election after having witnessed Donald Trump ascend to the presidency four years ago and subsequently make decisions that made a second term seem unconscionable to her.

"Clearly, it is a big deal, and it does make a difference," Le said. "The last four years had shown that not voting in 2016 was a mistake one doesn't want to make again."

Nicole Phan, another Asian American first-time voter, said she jumped at the chance to participate in the process this year after having become a naturalized citizen to "vote out the person and party that has been threatening the livelihood of women and people of color."

Le and Phan are among the burgeoning group of Asian American first-time voters who helped swing the state's 7th Congressional District, an area that has historically voted Republican, from red to blue. In the House race, Asian Americans strongly favored Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux, making up 150 percent of her winning margin, according to an election eve poll released by the AAPI Civic Engagement Fund. And, perhaps most notably, 2 of 5 Asian Americans in the district were first-time voters. With Senate runoff races scheduled for Jan. 5, organizers aren't ignoring the momentum.

As early voting began Monday, Georgia Democrats said they're aiming to engage the politically active group to help elect Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff.

"I think the objective, of course, is to replicate the kind of turnout that we saw and the runoff election that we saw during the general election from the Asian American communities," said Sam Park, a state representative who beat a Republican incumbent in 2017.

Park said the power of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community can't be underestimated, and their influence is reflected in research from the general election. According to the report, Asian Americans voted for Bourdeaux by 62 percent to 36 percent, making up about 17 percent of her total vote.

The research revealed that if Asian Americans hadn't voted at all, Bourdeaux would have lost by 52 percent to 48 percent, making them critical to her win. The group also skewed strongly toward Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, voting for him by 69 percent to 31 percent over President Donald Trump.

The research revealed that if Asian Americans hadn't voted at all, Bourdeaux would have lost by 52 percent to 48 percent, making them critical to her win. The group also skewed strongly toward Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, voting for him by 69 percent to 31 percent over President Donald Trump.

Aisha Yaqoob Mahmood, director of the Asian American Advocacy Fund, said the district had undergone a demographic shift, with many newly naturalized immigrants and newly eligible voters. Outreach is likely to have played a large role in getting Asian Americans, and specifically first-time voters, to the ballot box, the research showed.

According to the study, 68 percent of Asian Americans were contacted by a campaign, a political party or a community organization, compared to just over 50 percent of Asian Americans nationwide. Data about first-time voters showed that 46 percent got communications in the 7th District, while about half that percentage, 24 percent, were contacted across the U.S. as a whole.

Park, who's active in campaigning for Georgia Democrats, said that during the general election, the party and both candidates put forth coordinated multilingual outreach programs, conducted in-language phone banks and invested in ads in ethnic media. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee made a six-figure investment, hiring organizers to reach communities of color, with Asian Americans in Georgia being one group reach by the massive investment.

Park said that for the runoffs, campaigns staffed up with organizers who have long histories of working in Georgia communities. Citing organizer Vyanti Joseph's work on Warnock's campaign — as well as the additions of longtime organizer Linh Nguyen, a former staffer for Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., to the Georgia Democrats as AAPI coalition director and of activist Cam Ashling to Ossoff's campaign — he said Democrats are positioning themselves to continue to capitalize on the momentum.

"They've got some great folks on the ground who know what they're doing. They know how to organize within the Asian American community," Park said. "But also, I think, which is important to note, they have long-standing ties and relationships to Asian American communities, given that they're from these communities here in Georgia."

Park acknowledged that historically, the political parties and campaigns in Georgia hadn't always paid enough attention to communities of color, including the Asian American electorate. He said much of the outreach was catalyzed by Stacey Abrams, the former Democratic leader of the state House who ran in the 2018 gubernatorial election, who put forth "the kind of multilingual outreach operation that I think is necessary to effectively organize a very diverse community."

He said Abrams' outreach has always extended beyond campaign season.

"Before she ran for governor, as minority leader of the Georgia House Democratic Caucus, for example, she would do interviews on Radio Korea to update members of the Korean American community about what was going on under the Gold Dome at the state Capitol," Park said.

Political parties and campaigns can't be credited entirely for the large AAPI turnout, however.

Taeku Lee, a law and political science professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who worked on the study, said a smaller percentage reported having received or seen communications from community organizations like the Asian American Advocacy Fund, for example. But a much higher percentage found those communications very informative. And perhaps their work was particularly key to tilting the AAPI electorate to the left, where it hasn't always been in the South.

"Progressive grassroots groups and AAPI advocacy groups in Georgia, and especially around Atlanta, have done an especially good job organizing AAPIs and connecting the hardships and biases they face (which AAPIs everywhere face) to politics and to progressive politics," Lee wrote in an email.

Phi Nguyen, litigation director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta, said organizations often have to pick up the slack when it comes to providing sufficient language assistance, particularly to the AAPI community, which is made up of a significant proportion of limited English proficient, or LEP, voters.

For example, parts of Forsyth County that lie in the 7th District conduct their elections entirely in English, while Gwinnett County runs its elections bilingually in English and Spanish. Asian language assistance often goes unaccounted for by the counties, and organizations have to fill the gap.

"The burden of providing language assistance for LEP voters unfortunately continues to fall on community organizations with little investment from county elections officials," the litigation director said. "We've also advocated for counties to voluntarily provide elections materials in other languages at the polls, but Gwinnett County and Forsyth County have so far refused."

Aisha Yaqoob Mahmood, director of the organization, said much of the work the group does involves community education and expanding access to information that's usually provided only in English. The organization launched four different language hotlines before Election Day so people could ask questions that they couldn't direct to elections boards because of a lack of English skills.

"You're thinking about first-time voters who have never voted before voting via absentee ballot. It's a very daunting process," Mahmood said. "The way that elections work in Georgia is your ballot could get disqualified for very, very minute reasons. And so they wanted to make sure that they were doing it the right way."

Mahmood also said the circumstances of the last four years had prompted many immigrant communities in the area to take political action. She said that from concerns around health care during the Covid-19 pandemic to education and jobs in this trying time to other issues, including Trump's Muslim travel restrictions, many Asian American communities have "felt attacked from all different angles."

"I think, just as a whole, the Asian American community and other immigrants really felt a sense of needing to use their votes as a way to make sure that their voices and their needs were being heard," she said.

But what made the turnout in Georgia unique, Mahmood said, was that coalition-building across community groups eventually paid off. Through multilingual, multiethnic, multigenerational organizations, she said, the communities in the state were able to chart a new path.

As community organizations across cultures focused on issues from immigration reform to ending cash bail to getting police out of schools, Mahmood said, people of color were able to see wins.

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"I think the biggest value in our work is not just in how we organized in Asian American communities, but the way that we build community with other Black and Brown voters. That's the story for Georgia," she said.

"It's not just Asian voters," she said. "It's how Asian Americans, Latinos and Black voters really changed the electorate and changed the future of our state, and the future of our country. ... It's always tied into how can we make sure that we're achieving these victories for all of our Black and brown brothers and sisters."

Mahmood and Phi Nguyen agreed that political campaigns aren't perfect when it comes to investing in the Asian American community, but they said the general election turnout will make the group difficult to ignore from here on out.

"A lot of people are starting to recognize that without Asian Americans, without Latino voters, without Black voters, that Georgia could not have won."

Aisha Yaqoob Mahmood, director of the Asian American Advocacy Fund.

"A lot of people are starting to recognize that without Asian Americans, without Latino voters, without Black voters, that Georgia could not have won," Mahmood said of the Democratic Party. "It's not even numbers-wise. It's just looking at the electorate and who voted for who.

"I think they're pretty staggering numbers based on who white voters supported versus how communities of color are supported. So I think it's very clear that Democrats and progressives need our communities to sustain the wins that we have gotten in Georgia."