It’s the first Sunday morning of October 2016. I was at the Chua Bo De Buddhist Temple along with the local Philadelphia organization VietLead and some of my friends (including 18MR’s very own Oanh-Nhi), preparing for one of the last weekends before Pennsylvania’s Tuesday, October 11th voter registration deadline to vote in this upcoming Presidential election. (This prep also included a quick call to my mom to refresh myself on how to say, “register to vote,” in Cantonese.)
More than eight years ago, I didn’t think I would become as involved in civic engagement as I am now. Though my dad voted consistently for Presidential and gubernatorial elections, I was rarely encouraged to vote when I was growing up, and my family stayed fairly mum about politics (any “civil” debating between my brother and me, and we would be told to stop arguing). Through my history classes in school and growing up following politics on TV and in magazines, I was moved to vote, but I never bothered to wonder about the team effort and immense amount of coordination that was needed to encourage others to vote as well.
What compelled me to become involved with electoral politics was realizing that many Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) were not as engaged in this democratic process, which can be incredibly impactful on their and their families’ livelihood. There are many reasons for this: some families face English language barriers; some families come from politically oppressive countries where the decision to be politically vocal can be a fatal one; some families don’t want to cause trouble, and may think that being politically active could cause trouble (even if they, like my family, didn’t come from politically oppressive countries), and some families, because there’s no culture of voting in their families, don’t understand what voting entails.
Some of these things you can’t change. There are some things you can, like changing the culture that discourages AAPIs from voting. That begins with conversations, starting with the people you know. In addition to encouraging your friends and family to register to vote and vote at the polls on Election Day, you can help mobilize other voters to do the same. Conversations are necessary to mobilize more people to vote. That includes registering people to vote, phone banking, and door knocking. According to a survey from Asian American Justice Center, APIAVote, and National Asian American Survey, about two-thirds (2/3) of AAPIs did not receive any election-related contact during the 2012 election. That’s a missed opportunity. Election-related contact is essential to drive people to the polls as it can turn a hesitant voter into a likely voter. As an introvert, I sometimes get anxious about contacting other people. But no worries. I’ve since realized that it’s necessary work, and I feel uplifted when I do it with people I know and am comfortable with. You can, too! Throughout this year, I have been reaching out to friends about voting, and identifying ways to support AAPI student organizations that want to get their members to be a part of the process, too (especially when we consider the low rate that AAPI college students turn out to vote compared to their peers).
There are some things you can work around. In regards to the language barrier, 18MR is launching their much-anticipated VoterVOX application in California and Minneapolis for this election, with the hope of launching it more widely in other states in future elections. If you, a family member, or a friend can’t vote during this election, but is proficient in another language, at the very least, you can support voters with low English proficiency who want to vote by contributing your knowledge of Asian languages through VoterVOX. As a second-generation AAPI who grew up translating documents for her parents and grandparents, I have witnessed how frustrating, scary, isolating, and intimidating not knowing the main language of the country you’re living in can be. VoterVOX helps make language one less barrier to voting. In addition VoterVOX, many of my friends in the Philadelphia AAPI community have worked hard to increase language access for voting.
While I was registering some folks at the Hong Kong Supermarket in Northeast Philadelphia on Sunday, I met many people who had low English proficiency. On more than one occasion, I was asked if there would be someone who could tell them what to do on Election Day. On more than one occasion, I had to have them write that they needed language assistance on their voter registration form. On more than one occasion, I met people who expressed how much they really wanted to vote, even bringing along the family member they’re with to register them as well. (By coincidence, I had even registered the family of someone who was a part of my summer youth program when he had graduated from high school four years ago.)
This enthusiasm is encouraging, and makes me feel less alone when I openly talk about the need for more AAPIs to vote (when there are so few of us AAPIs doing this work, it’s easy to feel that way). Note that my voter registration drive on Sunday highlights the small number of AAPI folks I’ve encountered who really want to participate in this election. For others, they find the voting process and this culture of voting wholly intimidating. There needs to be more of us.
Because of how AAPIs exist in relatively small pockets around the country, there are still many more AAPIs who need to be registered to vote, and ultimately, vote on Election Day. We need this in order for our voices to be heard, and for our issues to be taken seriously by our elected officials, incorporating the nuances and perspectives that are unique to AAPIs. It is difficult to organize ourselves, and justify what the AAPI community needs when our voter turnout rate is low. This makes me reflect upon why I began getting involved in elections, and have continued to ever since I first became involved eight years ago. I want to change how AAPIs are represented and heard in this country. I won’t stop until our turnout rate is in parity with other racial groups.
If you are eligible to vote, go vote in this upcoming election. Don’t just vote in this Presidential election, but also in the other elections that happen during non-Presidential election years. Remember: it’s not something you do on your own. Encourage your friends and family to join you, and talk about voting openly to make it less taboo. If you can’t vote, you can still be a part of this effort by mobilizing voters. Together, we can make an impact in this and future elections. Together, we can vote for this culture change.