IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Voter outreach in South Asian languages ramps up before the election

Outreach materials are being translated into Telugu, Punjabi, Assamese, Bengali and Urdu, among other languages, at higher rates than in past years.
Image: U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden campaigns in Phoenix, Arizona
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris pass a campaign tour bus as they arrive to speak at a carpenters union in Phoenix on Oct. 8.Kevin Lamarque / Reuters file

Vijay Mehta and his wife, Vinoo, attended a virtual pre-election event from their home in Temple, Texas, with a goal of helping to combat misinformation online. While that strategy could apply to any number of groups this election cycle, this audience was a specific one. The couple spoke in Gujarati, a language originating from the Indian state of Gujarat.

The event is an example of a rise in targeted in-language outreach, including ads, meetups and phone banks to connect with voters of South Asian descent by both the campaigns and various national grassroots organizations, experts say.

The efforts align with an increase in the use of South Asian languages nationwide. A report by the Center for Immigration Studies states that the use of Telugu, Bengali and Tamil saw the most growth from 2010 to 2017, while Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi and Gujarati speakers were among the top 10 as compared to other languages.

A retired physician who worked with Veteran Affairs, Mehta told NBC Asian America that the couple was motivated to become politically active for the first time this year since moving to the United States in 1972, especially after witnessing the impact of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

“There was so much misinformation online and on WhatsApp. We wanted to participate in the event to help combat it,” he said of the event, which was organized by the Indians for Biden Council, an Indian American community group.

The group also organized a similar Texas-based Tamil language webinar in September to discuss the presidential elections and educate attendees on voter registration and mail-in ballots among other things.

The Biden campaign’s official AAPIs for Biden coalition was involved with both these community events. They work with affinity groups like South Asians for Biden and their ethnic national councils, including Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans.

The Democratic National Committee will also run get-out-the-vote radio ads in Asian languages, including Hindi/English-language ads on Geetanjali Radio and KXYZ in Houston, and Telugu and Urdu-language ads on Radio Caravan in Dallas, as part of a six-figure investment in battleground states.

The Trump campaign’s Indian Voices for Trump coalition held Indian Americans meetups via Zoom in languages like Gujarati, Hindi and Telugu to discuss voter registration and early and absentee ballot voting.

Even though most Asian and South Asian immigrants speak English, reaching out in native languages makes voters feel like a part of the campaign, according to Harini Krishnan, California co-state director for South Asians for Biden.

“AAPI voters are the fastest-growing bloc in the electorate but very few efforts were made to reach them in previous elections. There is more uptick in terms of outreach to subgroups this time,” she said.

Krishnan, who worked as a lead volunteer organizer for Sen. Kamala Harris’s presidential campaign, believes that her name on the ticket added to a renewed determination to mobilize the South Asian community.

Harris — whose mother emigrated from Chennai, India — used the word chitthi, which means mother’s younger sister in Tamil, during her speech at the Democratic National Convention in August. It led to the formation of an online group called The Chitthi Brigade, made up of about 200 South Asian and mostly South Indian women, the next day.

According to one of the founders, Shoba Viswanathan, they have participated in events like the Tamil language one in Texas as well as others held by organizations like South Asians for Biden and They See Blue.

These groups frequently conduct phone banking sessions, recruiting volunteers who are also able to speak in local languages. South Asians for Biden has set up recurring phone banks in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Nevada and Michigan.

Krishnan said that there is usually a hesitation in the minds of older desi voters when it comes to openly talking about the election, especially over the phone.

“My own parents sometimes get anxious over answering calls from anyone unknown,” she said, “but when we reach out and talk to older voters in Hindi or Tamil or Punjabi, they are more likely to talk about things like the election or their political affiliations.”

She added that they are mindful and representative of the diversity within the community in terms of linguistic identity and faith groups. “We then want to reach out to all subgroups based on issues impacting them, whether it’s job, health care or immigration,” she said.

In yet another initiative, the organization helped circulate digital graphic advertisements made in over 14 languages. The initiative was spearheaded by Ajay Jain Bhutoria, a DNC delegate for Biden, who also works closely with They See Blue and their 3,000 volunteers across the U.S..

A graphic in Hindi.Ajay Jain Bhutoria

The National Voter Registration Day themed graphics launched in September used the Hindi language phrase “Jaago America Jaago” — which means Wake up, America — and translated into the native languages like Telugu, Punjabi, Assamese, Bengali and Urdu among others, followed by a reminder to vote for Biden-Harris in November.

Bhutoria said that this particular outreach program leverages technology as a reminder for South Asians to register to vote and request mail-in ballots.

As for the results, Krishnan said it is difficult to measure them directly. She refers to the research firm AAPI Data’s September report showing a high Asian American voter enthusiasm for Biden.

“We take some comfort in that fact and use it to gauge our metrics,” she said. “The understanding of the lack of outreach in 2016 really helped us in this election cycle to ensure we work to increase desi voter turnout.”