On November 6, 2018, DeKalb County residents Mr. and Mrs. Kim* went to vote in the Georgia gubernatorial election (*names have been changed to protect privacy). The Kims were accompanied by a Korean-speaking interpreter from our organization, Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta, who would help them read the ballots they intended to cast. Under the federal Voting Rights Act, Mr. Kim and Mrs. Kim, who are both limited English proficient (LEP) voters, were entitled to an interpreter of their choice at the polls, provided that the interpreter was not a representative of their employer or union.
But at the time, Georgia law severely limited who could provide language assistance in state and local elections, requiring that the interpreter be either a close family member or registered voter in the same precinct. The Kims’ children lived out of state, and they did not know any Korean-speaking registered voters in their precinct. Because a federal race was also on the ballot, the Kims were entitled to use an interpreter from outside their family or precinct. But the poll workers did not let Mr. Kim cast his ballot. The dispute was resolved after the interpreter advocated for Mr. Kim to the poll manager and the manager’s supervisor, and the Kims were able to vote. Nevertheless, the restrictive state law remained, putting hundreds of thousands of LEP voters in Georgia at risk of being denied access to an interpreter. In late November, our organization filed a lawsuit and successfully challenged the Georgia law, which resulted in a quick settlement with the Georgia secretary of state, ending the law’s enforcement ahead of the December runoff election. In that election, Mr. Kim was able to vote with the interpreter of his choice.
Mr. and Mrs. Kim’s story sheds light on one of the many obstacles that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) continue to face at the polls. Asian Americans are the fastest growing of any major racial or ethnic group in the United States. Between 2010 and 2017, the AAPI population in the United States ballooned from 18 million to more than 22.6 million, an increase of 25.7 percent. Yet, numerous barriers to their civic engagement remain, including a lack of civics education, outreach, and in-language materials for AAPI voters, as well as efforts to suppress electoral participation of voters of color.
As a result, AAPI voter turnout has historically been low. As recently as 2014, Asian American voter turnout was only 28 percent nationwide. By 2018, turnout had grown to 42 percent—a sizable increase, but still significantly lower than the turnout rates for whites and blacks (57 percent and 51 percent, respectively). AAPI voter turnout in the 2020 election cycle remains an open question. A closer look at the barriers to AAPI civic engagement provides a starting place for dismantling them.
A lack of access to targeted, in-language civics education is a major barrier to civic engagement for many Asian Americans. Three-quarters of Asian American adults were born outside the United States, many in countries where they did not participate actively in democratic electoral processes. Civics education is taught in American public schools, but even though immigrants are required to pass a civics test before becoming an American citizen and gaining the right to vote, they are not offered comprehensive education about voting and the electoral process. Particularly if voting has not previously been a part of their culture or civic life, AAPI immigrants may not be inclined to see it as an important habit to create or maintain in their new country. Depending on their previous experiences, some AAPI immigrants may even be afraid to register to vote or to participate in elections.
Underlying the other barriers to Asian American civic engagement is the reluctance of major party politics, candidates, and media to take AAPI civic engagement seriously. AAPIs are rarely treated as a significant voting bloc whose electoral power must be activated. At the same time, AAPIs are hugely diverse, with widely varying political leanings, issue priorities, voting propensities, and accessibility needs. So why aren’t more politicians courting AAPI voters?
Some may believe that AAPIs don’t vote in large enough numbers to warrant an investment of time and resources into reaching them. This idea may be influenced in part by the model minority myth, which characterizes Asian Americans as a hardworking and docile group that may not be interested in disrupting the status quo by demanding political power. And like the broader model minority myth, the idea that Asian Americans don’t vote is just not true. While they remain low, AAPI voter turnout rates have been growing steadily over the past several election cycles. And in some cases, the AAPI vote can make a critical difference in an election. To name just one example, AAPIs make up less than 5 percent of the electorate in Georgia. Yet, 2018’s gubernatorial election hinged on just 55,000 votes, with about 238,000 eligible AAPI voters in the state.
The legacy of voter suppression in the United States is rooted in discrimination based on race and class. Immigrant voters, in addition to black and Native American voters, are targets of voter suppression tactics across the country. In Georgia, immigrant-specific voter suppression has taken the form of denying language access at the polls, “exact match” verification policies, and the rejection of absentee ballots over signature mismatches. There is a particularly critical need for language access to engage the hundreds of thousands of LEP voters in Georgia, where ballots are available only in English throughout the state (with the exception of a single county: Gwinnett County, where ballots are also required to be made available in Spanish).
In Georgia, AAPI and immigrant voters have faced steep barriers to exercising their right to vote. In 2010, Georgia implemented the now-notorious “exact match” policy, which required a voter’s name and other biographical information on their voter registration application to exactly match the applicant’s information on file with the Georgia Department of Driver Services (DDS) and the Social Security Administration. If a middle name was missing, if an apostrophe or space was out of place, if a stray hyphen was added by a DDS clerk, or if a mistake in data entry occurred at any point in the long and error-prone processes of state bureaucracy, the voter was placed on a list for eventual removal from the voter rolls. The exact match policy also froze the voter registrations of people who were erroneously flagged as noncitizens based on information known to be outdated.
The exact match system disproportionately affected voters of color, including AAPI voters. Approximately 80 percent of those pending voter registrations were submitted by black, Latino, and Asian voters. Asian names that originate in non-Latin alphabets may be romanized in different ways, leading to a failure to match across government agencies. Even names that are originally spelled in Latin characters but are unfamiliar to clerks or registrars are prone to being misspelled. And indeed, AAPI voters were six times more likely than white voters to fail the exact match requirement.
After facing legal challenges, the State of Georgia took steps to end the exact match system. However, over the 10 years that the system was in place, countless would-be voters whose registrations were placed on hold or purged got the government’s message that their participation in the electoral process was unwanted. Particularly for immigrants with LEP and limited experience with the electoral process or civic participation, such a frustrating experience could lead to a reluctance to participate in the future. Moreover, the exact match policy was not gutted in its entirety and is still the subject of pending litigation that aims to lessen the burden on citizens who are wrongly marked as noncitizens through the error-prone matching process.
Yet another round of litigation was required in 2018 to remedy a different policy that restricted voting access: the signature match requirement. Under this rule, voters whose signatures on their mail-in ballots did not appear to “match” their signatures on file with the secretary of state would have their ballots rejected without any meaningful opportunity to challenge the supposed mismatch. Several hundred of the rejected ballots, more than a quarter of the statewide total, came from a single county out of Georgia’s 159 counties—the county with the most AAPI residents.
The continued lack of sufficient multilingual materials that explain when, where, and how to vote also constitutes a form of voter suppression. One-third of Asian Americans are LEP, and the language barrier is a significant reason for AAPIs’ low levels of participation in the electoral process. Without sufficient actions from the state to address this gap, the task of providing and protecting language access falls to advocacy organizations like ours, which work to release their own multilingual materials about the voting process.
In addition, although successfully fought, the Georgia law restricting full access to an interpreter at the polls in 2018 and the legality of using an interpreter continues to be a point of contention. Even in states that freely allow voters to use interpreters, poll workers are often unaware and attempt to stop voters from using them. In these situations, LEP voters, who are often unaware of their rights and also not provided with in language voting materials, frequently choose to leave without voting rather than engage in a confrontation.
Producing and disseminating materials in-language aimed at specific ethnolinguistic populations is a crucial way to motivate AAPI communities to vote. On top of their ethnic and linguistic diversity, AAPI groups represent some of the wealthiest as well as some of the poorest communities in the United States; and the issues that motivate one group may not mean anything to another. Channels of outreach and even preferred social media platforms also differ from one ethnic group to another. And attitudes toward civic participation, as well as access to civics education and English language proficiency, vary widely among different age groups. Groups seeking to promote AAPI civic engagement must invest in strategies that involve learning about, connecting with, and working deeply in addition to broadly in the many different communities that make up the AAPI electorate.
The work of connection and engagement continues beyond elections. It is engagement with multiple groups, year-round, that keeps our communities engaged. AAPIs, like everyone else, will only be motivated to vote by trustworthy, deliverable promises that their communities and their issues will continue to matter to the candidates after Election Day.
Now, in 2020, the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic may also affect AAPI voting patterns in ways that cannot yet be predicted. Racist vitriol and public harassment directed at AAPIs have increased under the Trump administration’s insistence on referring to the coronavirus as “the Chinese virus.” On the other hand, Andrew Yang’s controversial op-ed urging Asian Americans to “show our Americanness in ways we never have before” as a way to address anti-Asian racism sparked a rare national dialogue about Asian American civic participation. It remains to be seen whether the pandemic and its effects will galvanize AAPIs to vote in higher numbers this fall or discourage them from participation. The scramble to figure out how to administer massive vote-by-mail drives during a pandemic also brings into question whether absentee voters will face new challenges in having their ballots counted.
Still, the myriad challenges of fostering AAPI civic engagement are equally matched by the great opportunity. In 2020, 1 out of 10 eligible voters is a naturalized citizen, and in 2018, 31 percent of this immigrant electorate were Asian American. Yet only 52 percent of the foreign-born AAPI electorate turned out to vote in the last presidential election, and only 43 percent in the last midterm. These numbers represent the huge potential for engaging immigrant AAPI voters in the 2020 presidential election and beyond.
While national AAPI public opinion surveys are not conducted very frequently, the existing data suggests that AAPIs care strongly about a variety of issues. One of the most comprehensive analyses of AAPI public opinion can be found in the State of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders Series, a joint project between AAPI Data and the Center for American Progress. According to this series, in 2012, AAPIs were more likely than the U.S. average to support environmental protections, prioritize government spending over tax cuts, and have a favorable view of the Affordable Care Act. AAPIs are a politically and demographically diverse group, but all candidates need to know that AAPIs have strong opinions on today’s major issues and are an important group to engage.
Our organization’s experience with voter outreach to AAPI communities suggests that AAPI voters respond to outreach, especially when it is done in their languages. In 2016, we formed the Georgia Immigrant Alliance for Civic Empowerment (GIACE) coalition and contacted over 20,000 voters in at least five different languages. In 2018, more than 61 percent of the voters contacted by the coalition turned out to vote, compared to the average Georgia voter with a turnout rate of about 56 percent. Additionally, in 2018, the AAPI votes cast grew 217 percent from 2014 levels, resulting in a 109 percent increase in AAPI vote share. In other words, the AAPI vote in Georgia had more than double the impact in 2018 than it did just four years prior.
There are concrete actions that we can all take to protect and encourage civic participation, for AAPIs and voters of color as a whole. Supporting organizations like ours that do civic engagement work—especially grassroots organizations that are immigrant-led—is a significant way to contribute. Academics can include and elevate AAPI voting issues in their research. Attorneys can offer pro bono legal services, serve as pro bono counsel at a firm, educate themselves on local elections practices, volunteer to run an election protection hotline or to do poll monitoring with trusted immigrant-led organizations. The legal community can also help draft proactive legislation and help to challenge harmful legislation. Finally, they can build relationships with their county boards of elections in order to raise issues directly if they see or hear of any unfair practices.
Central to the process of defending and expanding voting rights is community engagement. This is why we believe that a multipronged strategy is necessary to deeply engage AAPI communities. We directly engage our communities through thoughtful outreach, and also use those experiences to inform our litigation and policy priorities in ensuring that the government is compliant with federal voting rights laws and that all voters’ rights are protected. This unique dual role ensures that the litigation in which we participate and the legislation for which we advocate respond to the needs of the AAPI communities we serve. To bring about real change in voting rights and participation, we must first listen to what the community has to tell us. The next task is to spread the word.
Stephanie Cho is the executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice- Atlanta. She brings 20 years of experience in labor and community organizing, strategy planning, and fundraising at the local and national level. She is a proud Queer Korean Mom.
Phi Nguyen is the litigation director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice- Atlanta. Outside of her legal practice, Phi coproduces Wake Up, Atlanta, a web series dedicated to educating and civically empowering AAPI youth in Georgia.
Nathalie Levine was formerly the naturalization program coordinator and a DOJ-accredited representative at Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta. She is currently pursuing her master of information degree at Rutgers University and loves books, zines, in-language voting outreach, and justice.
Yuri Lee is the grants manager at Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta.