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Young Asian American DNC delegates aim to get out the vote, increase party representation

"As an Asian American, Chinese American, Laotian American, Southeast Asian with a refugee background — these aren't really identities that are talked about," one delegate said.
Aaryaman Singhal, 27, an organizer with the Sunrise Movement, is a Texas delegate for Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Aaryaman Singhal, 27, an organizer with the Sunrise Movement, is a Texas delegate for Sen. Bernie Sanders.Courtesy Aaryaman Singhal

Like most high school seniors this year, Victor Shi spent much of his time applying to colleges.

But Shi, 18, was also focused on completing another important mission, one not typical for most teens — winning election as Illinois' youngest delegate to the Democratic National Convention.

"I knew that Asian Americans and young people tended to be politically apathetic, especially in the political arena, so I took that and I became a delegate for Joe Biden," Shi, who is headed to UCLA, said in an interview.

Nearly 2 in 5 Asian Americans say they don't identify with a political party. Shi represents the many young Democratic Party delegates who want to change that, he said. They aim to urge more members of the community to become politically active and work to increase representation in the party.

IMAGE: Joe Biden with Victor Shi and other supporters
Victor Shi, 18, attended one of Joe Biden's rallies in Urbandale, Iowa, ahead of the Iowa caucuses in February. Shi is an Illinois delegate for the former vice president.Courtesy Victor Shi

Motivated by a strong sense of civic duty, young Asian Americans are among some of the fresh faces elected as delegates to next month's nearly all-virtual Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee.

Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., a vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, said involving young Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the party is critical to ensuring that Asian American and Pacific Islander voters engage in the political process and turn out on Election Day.

Accounting for around 5 percent of the nation's eligible voters, Asian Americans have historically had some of the lowest voter turnout numbers in the country. But they're also the fastest-growing segment of the electorate of all major racial and ethnic groups, according to the Pew Research Center.

As Asian Americans become more politically active, candidates from both parties have increasingly gone after their votes, believing they could make a difference in close elections.

"It's crucial that younger generations of AAPIs have a voice in our party, and that includes serving as delegates to the Democratic National Convention," Meng said in an email.

While the rules are complicated, delegates can be selected in state contests like primaries and caucuses. Those who are chosen get to attend the national convention, where they pick the party's presidential nominee. They also help set the platform and rules.

The 2020 contest has sown political and ideological divisions, including among Asian Americans, who are part of an energized electorate expected to double by 2040.

"I'm here to help push the party to serve the needs of the vast majority of our people who also aren't represented in the party itself," said Wayne Yeh, 26, a Massachusetts delegate for Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

IMAGE: Wayne Yeh
Wayne Yeh, 26, is a Massachusetts delegate for Sen. Bernie Sanders.Wayne Yeh

Shi recalled watching the Democratic and Republican conventions on television back in 2016, the same year he entered high school as a freshman.

"I was in awe that so many people united together to celebrate their parties' respective candidates," Shi said.

While working on his college applications, Shi launched a bid to become a delegate for Biden, the former vice president, who he said he believes can beat President Donald Trump in November.

Shi gathered petition signatures, got on the ballot and won in an Illinois primary in March.

"Being a delegate could be a nice way for me not only to advocate for the Joe Biden campaign and my values but also help other young people and Asian Americans get into politics and make their voices heard," said Shi, who is Chinese American.

Shi said he used WeChat, the hugely popular social media app developed by the Chinese internet company Tencent, to join groups his mom was in. There, he had conversations with other Chinese American parents about why Asian Americans should be involved in politics. He also discussed his candidacy for delegate.

He said WeChat allowed him to help parents understand the importance of civic engagement.

For Yeh, winning a delegate's spot was about lifting the voices of immigrant communities of color, in which he served as a grassroots organizer.

"Myself — knowing my identities as an Asian American, Chinese American, Laotian American, Southeast Asian with a refugee background — these aren't really identities that are talked about or at the forefront both of Asian America and both of national politics or even the Democratic Party itself," said Yeh, who works as a policy assistant to a Boston City Council member.

Yeh, who is running to be a member of Massachusetts' Electoral College delegation, said he continues to work with two Boston-based political projects — Chinese Progressive Political Action and Right to the City VOTE.

Both groups aim to build the political power of Boston's working-class immigrants and communities of color around a progressive agenda, Yeh said.

"By connecting directly with voters on issues that impact their day-to-day lives, it becomes a political education opportunity to inform them of the importance of voting for every level of office and civic life," Yeh said.

Aaryaman Singhal, 27, said he was organizing with the Sunrise Movement, a youth climate activist group, when he decided to run as a Sanders delegate from Texas.

"Someone came to one of our meetings who said that one really important way to influence the Democratic Party and make sure that the Green New Deal is an important part of the party's platform and vision moving forward is to attend the county, state and national conventions and to make sure those issues are raised and put on the platform," said Singhal, who is Indian American.

IMAGE: Aaryaman Singhal
Aaryaman Singhal, 27, an organizer with the Sunrise Movement, is a Texas delegate for Sen. Bernie Sanders.Courtesy Aaryaman Singhal

A Democratic National Committee official said committee doesn't yet have a complete list or number of Asian American delegates because states are still electing them.

In recent years, the Republican Party has made a big push to win back Asian Americans, a bloc that gave 55 percent of its vote in 1992 to President George H.W. Bush.

While Asian Americans today lean more toward the Democratic Party, there are divisions within the diverse community on topics like immigration, policing and affirmative action. The divide has reared its head this political season.

A majority of Asian Americans voted for Hillary Clinton in the last election, but Democratic Party leaders have vowed not to take their support for granted.

Trump captured high approval ratings from Vietnamese Americans, according to the 2018 Asian American Voter Survey, and he also garnered support from some first-generation Chinese American immigrant voters.

Yeh underscored the importance of bringing Asian American voters back into the Democratic Party.

"That's where I feel like the focus really needs to be," he said.

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This year's convention is the first for all three delegates. But because of the coronavirus pandemic, none will travel to Milwaukee, and all caucus and council meetings will occur virtually.

That, however, hasn't dampened their enthusiasm.

Singhal said he's still excited about collaborating with other young delegates to put forward a vision to the Democratic Party that includes a focus on social and racial justice, as well as the climate crisis.

"I think this is a really critical moment for our country to take a really hard look at how we are doing things and really find a way to do things better," Singhal said.

"I feel very fortunate to be in a position to have some say in it as a national delegate," he said.

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