Democratic activist Cam Ashling pulled out the stops ahead of Georgia’s general election last year and its recent Senate runoffs.
Her Georgia Advancing Progress PAC sent 12,000 handwritten postcards in an array of languages – Korean, Vietnamese, Urdu and more – to reach voters in Georgia’s fast-growing Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. Her team hosted a K-Pop dance rally near one early voting location in suburban Atlanta and served bubble tea near polling places in others.
That effort and those of other activists paid off: AAPI turnout surged in Georgia with nearly 62,000 additional Asian American and Pacific Islanders casting ballots in 2020 general election than did so four years earlier, according to an analysis by Democratic data firm TargetSmart. That far exceeded President Joe Biden’s 11,779-vote margin of victory in the state.
But Ashling’s exultation over the 2020 results was quickly tempered by concerns that a raft of new voting restrictions could blunt the political power of this burgeoning voting bloc. Georgia’s new voting law, passed by the GOP-led state legislature and signed swiftly by the state’s Republican Gov. Brian Kemp in March, cuts the time allowed for voters to request absentee ballots, bars election officials from sending absentee ballot applications to all voters and imposes new identification requirements to receive a ballot by mail.
It also makes it a misdemeanor for an outside group to approach voters in line to offer them refreshments, including water.
“I thought, ‘Was this directed at us?’ ” Ashling said of the Georgia law. “They saw we were giving bubble tea, and now we have a law that prohibits snacks and water at the polls.”
Around the country, AAPI activists are increasingly worried that new voting restrictions approved by Republican-controlled legislatures in recent months could undermine the gains made last year when pandemic-related rules made it easier for wide swaths of Americans cast their ballots. Many of the new laws seek to restrict access to ballot drop boxes or impose new requirements, such as identification, to vote by mail.
Proponents said those restrictions are needed to guard against voter fraud, including an ineligible voter receiving a ballot by mail and illegally voting.
In a recent speech, Vice President Kamala Harris – the nation’s highest-ranking Asian American elected official – noted that 64% of Asian Americans cast their ballots by mail and said efforts to restrict that form of voting take aim at the AAPI community.
“We must see these efforts for what they are,” she said during an appearance at the AAPI Victory Alliance Unity Summit. “Let’s be clear-eyed: They are an attempt to suppress the right to vote.”
New force in politics
Nationally, Asian Americans make up about 7% of the total US population. But they were the fastest-growing segment of eligible voters among all major racial or ethnic groups between 2000 and 2020, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of Census data.
Some of the biggest population gains have come in the booming Sun Belt – places such as Georgia, Arizona and Texas – where changing demographics have made the states more politically competitive.
Last year, Biden became the first Democratic presidential contender in more than two decades to win Georgia and Arizona.
This year, Republicans in those states have moved to impose new voting restrictions, spurred on by former President Donald Trump’s persistent falsehoods about a stolen election.
(While there have been rare instances of voter fraud from mail-in balloting, experts agree that it is not a widespread problem in US elections. And a voter fraud commission that Trump established during his time in office disbanded without providing any proof to back up his claims of voter fraud in the 2016 presidential contest.)
Asian American voters are more likely to be immigrants than other major racial or ethnic groups. Two-thirds of eligible Asian American voters in 2020 were naturalized citizens, compared to about 25% of Latinos, according to Pew’s figures.
As a result, Trump’s immigration policies and his rhetoric about the coronavirus’ origins proved a galvanizing force for these voters last year, said Varun Nikore, president of the AAPI Victory Fund, which mobilizes progressive voters. During his White House tenure, Trump used words such as “China virus” and “kung flu” to refer the coronavirus, which was first reported in Wuhan, China.
And during the pandemic, Asian Americans have faced escalating violence, with reported hate crimes against Asians in nearly two dozen of the nation’s largest cities and counties up 194% in the first quarter this year over the same time period last year, according to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State University San Bernardino.
“There is among certain AAPI cultures a sense of: “Let’s not stand up and rise above the crowd. Let’s not get noticed. Let’s just put our heads down and work,’ ” Nikore said.
“But there was kind of a collective realization during the pandemic that folks could not be silent and that we needed to be vocal,” he said. “This has turned many more people in the AAPI community into activists instead of passive watchers of politics on TV.”
Nationally, Asian American turnout soared to record levels – jumping from 49% in 2016 to 60% in 2020, according to an analysis by AAPI Data, which collects data and conducts policy research. Pacific Islander participation jumped from roughly 41% to nearly 56%.
AAPI voters trend Democratic. But they are not a monolithic voting bloc, with party preferences varying by voter’s country of origin and age, said Neil Ruiz, associate director of race and ethnicity research at the Pew Research Center.
Krithi Vachaspati, an Indian-American graduate student who lives in the Phoenix area said, the “rise in racial tensions and hate crimes against Asian Americans, and really anybody, is activating more of our folks, for sure.”
But that doesn’t mean Biden and Harris have a lock on her support.
The 25-year-old voted for the ticket, but she says she and her friends would have preferred a more progressive president in the mold of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Among her current concerns: US policy favoring Israel.
“We didn’t like Trump,” Vachaspati said. “But we’re equally critical of the current administration, and we’re not keeping our mouths shut.”
Back in Georgia, Asian American groups are challenging the new restrictions.
Several advocacy groups have sued to block the law, arguing that new limits on ballot drop boxes and a shorter window for requesting an absentee ballot could harm AAPI voters, who disproportionately cast their ballots by mail in recent elections.
Given the massacre of six Asian women in the Atlanta area in March and continued violence against Asians, “the accessibility of absentee voting has taken on particular importance for the AAPI community,” Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta, argued in its lawsuit.
More on Voting Rights
Kemp has said the shorter window to request absentee ballots – starting 11 weeks before the election and ending 11 days before – was designed to accommodate requests from local elections officials. Previously, voters had a six-month period to request ballots, which AAPI activists said gave first-time Asian American voters and those who need language assistance time to study election materials.
“You still have weeks and weeks to request your absentee ballot,” Kemp said at a news conference earlier this year. “But now we are cutting that deadline a little bit shorter at 11 days prior to the election to make sure the voter has time to get their ballot back where it will be counted.”
In all, seven lawsuits are now pending against Georgia’s new voting restrictions, according to a tally by Georgia Public Broadcasting. Ashling, who also worked on the campaigns of Biden and Democratic Sen. Jon Ossoff in the last election, said activists hope the law “dies by a thousand cuts” in court.
But if it stands, Ashling said she and her team will start over with a new education campaign. And Georgia’s newest group of AAPI voters, she said, “will have to re-learn stuff (they) just figured out how to do.”