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As NY Primary Approaches, Advocates Focus on Getting Out the Vote

Since March, Chhaya CDC has focused on getting out the vote in Queens, which is home to New York City's largest South Asian community.
Volunteers with Chhaya prepare to go door-knocking April 16, 2016, to get out the vote for New York's Democratic and Republican primaries.
Volunteers with Chhaya prepare to go door-knocking April 16, 2016, to get out the vote for New York's Democratic and Republican primaries.Chris Fuchs / NBC News

It was just before 1 p.m. Saturday, and Rasel Rahman had already encountered his first locked apartment building of the day.

“Seriously?” Rahman asked as he looked for an outside buzzer.

Plotting their next move, Rahman and his team of door-knockers, Yangchen Chadotsang and Paola Di Lorenzo, flipped through sheets of paper on their clipboard in search of phone numbers for six Queens, New York, residents they planned to visit in that building. Their luck changed for the better when a young woman on her way out held open the door.

Once inside, Rahman wasted no time and rang the bell for apartment 1B. The door budged a crack, then shut sharply.

“Because she’s a woman and I’m a man, she’s getting back to see if the man can answer the door,” Rahman told NBC News.

RELATED: Ahead of New York Primary, South Asian Voters Debate Clinton vs. Sanders

A moment later, an older man with a long, white beard wearing a kurta, a traditional Bengali upper garment, opened the door wider than before. Rahman spoke in Bengali, mixing in a few English words like “important” and “reminder” as he told the man that Tuesday is New York’s presidential primary. The encounter, a few minutes in all, ended with a smile and Rahman handing over a flyer in Bengali and English with a list of candidates and their photos.

“So, yes, he will vote,” Rahman announced to the team, recording his answer in a smartphone application that links to a database of registered voters.

A Bengali version of a flyer Chhaya door-knockers handed out to registered voters ahead of New York's Democratic and Republican primaries Tuesday.Courtesy of Chhaya Community Development Corporation

This year’s presidential race has generated much interest across the country, including among New York's immigrant communities. Among those observing with keen interest are Asian Americans, who make up at least 7.9 percent of New York City’s registered voters, according to data from the MinKwon Center for Community Action, a New York-based non-profit.

Since September, APA VOICE, a coalition of 18 non-profits headed by the MinKwon Center for Community Action, has signed up approximately 5,629 Asian-American New Yorkers to vote — more than double the number between August 2014 and August 2015. But the rub, organizers say, is actually making sure voters head to the polls for Tuesday’s primary and Election Day.

“For Asian Americans, that’s just as big of a challenge as getting registered,” James Hong, the MinKwon Center’s director of civic engagement, told NBC News.

Chhaya Community Development Corporation, a Queens nonprofit that is part of APA VOICE, began its get-out-the-vote drive on March 22, Rahman said, with a phone bank targeting the borough’s South Asian community, the city’s largest. Over the last few weeks, Chhaya has also been busy visiting the homes of South Asians registered to vote in the state’s Democratic and Republican primaries, a tried-and-true method of motivating citizens to head to the polls.

Up for grabs in New York are 291 delegates for Democrats and 95 for Republicans. As of Monday, Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton was leading with 1,758 delegates and Trump with 744, according to NBC News. Democratic candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont had 1,076 delegates and Republican candidate Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas 559. A Democrat needs 2,383 delegates and a Republican 1,237 to secure the nomination.

Rasel Rahman makes a phone call to see if a registered voter still lives in an apartment building.Chris Fuchs / NBC News

On Saturday, one of Chhaya’s final door-knocking runs, 14 volunteers assembled in the late morning at a corner restaurant in Jamaica, a Queens enclave that in recent years has seen a sharp increase in its South Asian population. The goal, by day’s end, was to visit 564 homes, some of which had more than one registered voter.

“Your job is to tell them how important it is [to vote],” Rahman, Chhaya’s community organizing and advocacy program manager, told the group. “But, again, we have to keep all the conversation as non-partisan. We’re not supporting any candidate or any party.”

Paola Di Lorenzo (left), Yangchen Chadotsang, and Rasel Rahman try to figure out how to visit registered voters in an apartment building locked from the outside.Chris Fuchs / NBC News

Saturday was Di Lorenzo’s first experience door-knocking. The 26-year-old student said she learned about it while enrolled in an undergraduate Asian-American civil rights course at Hunter College. Having grown up in Ecuador, Di Lorenzo became a U.S. citizen just last year, voting for the first time in November. Getting others to the polls on Tuesday means a lot to her, she said.

“Sometimes people say, ‘Oh, no, my individual vote doesn’t count,’” Di Lorenzo, who speaks Italian and Spanish, told NBC News. “But it’s not about the individual vote. It’s about the community vote, the collective vote.”

“This is the first time in a presidential primary I see a lot of people interested.”

In Di Lorenzo’s team, Rahman and Chadotsang, Chhaya’s senior housing counselor who speaks some Bengali, did most of the talking with registered voters, many of whom were immigrants from Bangladesh. The trio had to work efficiently to finish their assignment, keeping their scripted conversations brief but friendly.

Sometimes the encounters were seamless, the voters acknowledging they knew the date of the primary and promising they would vote. Other times there were snags. One occurred when a little boy answered the door, and Rahman asked if the person on his list lived there. The boy shrugged and shut the door, eventually summoning his mom who spoke to Rahman. A quick discussion revealed that the voter had moved, an update Rahman made in his smartphone voter database application called MiniVAN.

Then there was the case of a woman living in a nearby apartment whose name wasn’t on the team’s voter list. Rahman tried checking with the city and state Board of Elections through his phone to see if she was registered, but the online database didn’t work.

“That’s a common issue in every election,” Rahman said. “When we do door knocking or phone banking, because it’s the time when a lot of people use it, it goes down.”

Rasel Rahman looks for the buzzer of a registered voter as Paola Di Lorenzo and Yangchen Chadotsang check their voter list.Chris Fuchs / NBC News

After finishing up with those apartments, Rahman, Chadotsang, and Di Lorenzo headed to another wing of the building, where more registered voters lived. A woman opened her own door to have a look as they passed by.

Stumbling out of the apartment came a toddler, who tagged along with the Chhaya group. She took a particular liking to Rahman, running in circles around his legs as he spoke on the phone to another woman on his list who wasn’t home.

“So she’s a first-time voter, she’s going to vote,” he said after hanging up. “She had a question about whether she needed to bring ID.”

Rasel Rahman (left), Paola Di Lorenzo, and Yangchen Chadotsang search for their next building to knock on doors.Chris Fuchs / NBC News

Although New York does not have a voter ID requirement, Rahman said he told her it’s best to bring ID or the Board of Elections letter she received, both of which could help speed things up at the polling site.

Door-knocking in any election year can be a frustrating experience. “Sixty or 70 percent of people often don’t open the door,” Rahman said. But Chhaya’s efforts on Saturday, he added, were successful. The volunteers were able to hit 80 percent of homes on their list, with three out of the four teams reporting that most people they visited said they would vote on Tuesday, he said.

“This is the first time in a presidential primary I see a lot of people interested,” Rahman said.

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