Asian American and Pacific Islanders’ Record Turnout Helped Flip Georgia Blue. Now They Could Shape the Future of the Senate
Supporters of Democratic Senate nominees Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff gather in Shorty Howell Park in Duluth, Georgia for an early K-Pop Dance Rally voting on December 20. The event was organized by the Georgia Chapter of the Asian American Action Fund, a Democratic PAC
Supporters of Democratic Senate nominees Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff gather in Shorty Howell Park in Duluth, Georgia for an early K-Pop Dance Rally voting on December 20. The event was organized by the Georgia Chapter of the Asian American Action Fund, a Democratic PAC loan - Arvin Temkar
On November 3rd, Woo Kwon soon stayed up watching the news. He really wanted to know the results of the first American election he voted. Kwon, who has lived in Georgia for 13 years, immigrated to the US from South Korea in 2007, and when he finally became a naturalized citizen that year, he looked forward to exercising his new right. "Now I have the feeling that as a citizen I really live in the United States," he says. "I'm only one of the voters, but I was able to share my vote with the people."
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Kwon is one of around 140,000 Asia-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) voters in Georgia who achieved record numbers in the 2020 presidential election. The AAPI voter turnout in Peach State nearly doubled this year from 2016, a rate of growth faster than that of black, white, or Latin American voters in the state. According to polls, nearly seven out of ten voters voted for the Biden Harris ticket. With President-elect Joe Biden winning Georgia by just 12,000 votes, her vote has helped swing the state for Democrats, observers say.
The rise in voter turnout was no accident. Politicians on both ends of the political spectrum are realizing the importance of the AAPI voters. They are the fastest growing racial or ethnic group in the country's voting population. One in five AAPI voters in the US had been elected for the first time in the 2020 elections. In Georgia, where they make up around 3% of the electorate, voter organizations and advocacy groups have worked tirelessly to mobilize AAPI voters who say they have been ignored by politicians and parties for years.
These efforts will continue ahead of Georgia’s January 5 runoff election, which will determine whether Democrats take over the Senate or Republicans continue to control it. In the past 30 years, according to Inside Elections, Democrats have won only one in eight nationwide runoffs in Georgia general or special elections. Voting groups and democratic campaigns alike are trying to get the Georgian AAPI people to vote for a second time.
"Our work will be even more important in convincing them that, 'Yes, you just voted last month, but this choice is important and you need to come back and do it again," says Aisha Yaqoob Mahmood, executive director of Asian American Advocacy Fund.
"We have to do it for ourselves."
Although voter turnout in the 2020 election was high, AAPI communities have historically not been prioritized by researchers, researchers say. "As long as we have data on this, AAPI voters are less likely to have been contacted by a campaign or candidate than others," says Taeku Lee, professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley. Compared to white or black voters, this range can be up to 10 percentage points.
That has real ramifications for participation, says Brad Jenkins, former White House deputy director of Obama and co-founder of the political advocacy group RUN AAPI. In September, RUN AAPI published the first political opinion poll aimed exclusively at Asian Americans between the ages of 18 and 34. One of the biggest barriers to their turnout, according to the survey, was a lack of motivation. 42 percent of respondents responded that they had at least one of three motivational barriers: They didn't think their vote made a difference, that they weren't interested in politics, or that they didn't have candidates to vote for.
"It comes down to the lack of investment and really the lack of prioritization and focus on this community," says Jenkins. "If you don't feel seen, if you don't feel heard, you won't feel like you have power."
In the past, false assumptions - for example that AAPIs were too small a constituency to be worth investing in, or "low inclination voters" because they are newly naturalized citizens - may have provided information as to why candidates or campaigns fail focused on that AAPI reach, says Lee. These misleading views are particularly difficult to shake "if the inner circles of the campaigns do not reflect the diversity of the electorate, as has too often been the case in the past," he adds.
To motivate young AAPI voters across the country ahead of this year's general election, Jenkins and actress Chloe Bennett launched the #TheNew campaign, which hosted text banks and shared voting information on social media. The campaign also posted a video with a number of prominent community members and supporters, including Taika Waititi, Harry Shum Jr., Alexander Wang, and Cory Booker, encouraging people to vote. "We can't just wait for a lot of old white men to run traditional advertising agencies or political super PACs and keep ignoring our community," says Jenkins. “We have to do it ourselves. We can't wait for someone to do it for us. "
Political signs outside the home of Cam Ashling, chairman of the Georgia Advancing Progress PAC, in Atlanta on November 13th. Nicole Craine - The New York Times / Redux
AAPI voters are not a monolith; The umbrella term encompasses more than 30 different ethnic subgroups and reflects a wide range of cultural practices, mother tongues, values and political inclinations. According to a poll by AAPI Data, Vietnamese Americans are far more likely to oppose Republicans compared to other Asian American subgroups, and Indian Americans have begun to shift to the right after years as dependable Democratic voters. Voter turnout rates in different AAPI subgroups also vary.
The organizers say that as the broader group gains political clout, the reach of its members needs to be more focused. "I think if there was a way for Indian advertisers to target Indian households and Korean advertisers to target Korean households, it would have an even bigger impact," said Mindy Kao, an advertiser in Georgia. "My parents are from Taiwan. So if I could be sent to Chinese households in any way, I would feel like I could socialize."
"The difference between winning and losing."
In Georgia, organizers and advertisers like Kao managed to get the November AAPI vote by going back to these cultural contexts, sending AAPI recruiters to AAPI households, emphasizing the importance of their votes, and providing voting information in the relevant media in the local language brought. Michael Park, who works with the non-partisan group Korean American Coalition Metro Atlanta, helped place registration information, candidate profiles, and key voting dates in local editions of Korean-language newspapers such as the Chosun Daily and the Korea Times, and on KTN, the Korean television network.
Organizers say it will be harder to get Georgia voters to show up in that number twice. Many voters experience election fatigue, says Lee, after an intense and drawn-out election. And in general, any type of runoff ballot has a lower turnout than the first round. "All along the line, drains in Georgia have really bad turnout," says Mahmood of the Asian American Advocacy Fund. "People just aren't the same number."
And the same obstacles organizers had to overcome to reach AAPI voters in November need to be tackled again. Despite the efforts of some groups, only half of the AAPI voters in Georgia's 7th Congressional District had access to voting materials in an Asian language they spoke in November. This resulted in an election week that Lee had conducted. "Access to languages is a seemingly small and easy way to ensure participation, but it remains elusive for too many AAPI-registered voters," he says.
The recent survey closings could pose another major challenge. On December 10, election officials in Forsyth county, where Kwon was voting, announced the closure of six early voting sites that were operational in November. With AAPI voters voting in large numbers early during the general election, electoral groups say the closings could reduce the number of participating AAPI voters.
The campaigns of the Democratic Senate are paying attention to this critical section of the population in the run-up to January 5th. The two Democratic candidates Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock have campaign staff dedicated to public relations for the AAPI. Warnock's campaign has posted advertisements in the language in Chinese, Korean and South Asian media and has hosted several events and rallies for AAPI voters.
The Ossoff team has made over 100,000 calls to AAPI voters since the runoff began and hired Mandarin-speaking organizers to communicate with voters to inform them of deadlines and candidates up and down the vote. Ossoff's campaign cited Stacey Abrams, who hired a dedicated staff member to reach the AAPI community during her run for governor in 2018, as a source of inspiration for reaching out to voters with less inclination in color communities, regardless of their electoral history.
Republican candidates Senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue did not respond to requests for comment.
In just a few weeks, Lee says, no campaign should be taken for granted by AAPI voters. "The 2020 presidential race was decided with just 12,000 votes," he says. "It's safe to say that high AAPI voter turnout versus low AAPI voter turnout can mean the difference between winning and losing."
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