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Outrage over pandemic racism may boost Asian American voter turnout in NYC

Asian American and Pacific Islanders voted in record numbers last November, which experts said was fueled in part by the pandemic and former President Donald Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric.

Now, ahead of next week’s mayoral and City Council primaries in New York City, community leaders say outrage over anti-Asian racism and excitement about the historic bids of Andrew Yang and other Asian American candidates could similarly boost the group’s participation in local elections.

“People are starting to understand that the next step to directing your energy against anti-Asian hate is to vote and talk to elected officials,” Christine Chen, executive director of the national civic engagement organization APIAVote, told NBC Asian America. “They’re the ones who are going to resource mental health capabilities. They’re the ones who can help incorporate Asian American history into the K-12 curriculum.” 

The rise in bias incidents over the past year has “incited more interest about how policy can play a role in keeping our community members safe,” said Sandra Choi, civic participation manager at the MinKwon Center for Community Action, a Flushing-based grassroots group that serves working-class Korean and Asian communities.

The grassroots group MinKwon and other organizations with the APA Voice coalition are putting on a week of get-out-the-vote initiatives in New York City’s Asian enclaves. MinKwon Center for Community Action / APA

More Asian American voters have been asking how different levels of government affect their quality of life, she said, and how candidates plan on addressing anti-Asian violence and improving public safety in their neighborhoods. 

“For immigrant Americans in general, the cost of participating in our democracy is so high,” Choi said, noting long-standing barriers such as the lack of in-language information about candidates, issues and the voting process.

MinKwon, along with 18 other local groups that form the APA Voice coalition, hosted a series of virtual forums with City Council candidates campaigning in districts that boast large Asian American populations. In preparation for early voting, which lasts from June 12 to June 20, the coalition put together a week of get-out-the vote initiatives in Asian enclaves to register people and inform them about ranked-choice voting.

Get-out-the-vote initiatives in predominantly Asian American neighborhoods are aimed not only at registering people to vote but also at teaching them about ranked-choice voting.MinKwon Center for Community Action / APA

The new voting process, which allows New Yorkers to select up to five candidates on the ballot, has in some ways pushed mayoral and City Council hopefuls to engage with racial and ethnic groups that fall outside their base, said Howard Shih, research and policy director at the nonprofit organization Asian American Federation.

“There’s a lot more interest from candidates to reach out to Asian American voters as much as possible,” he said.

But the pandemic has thrown a wrench into traditional campaigning and voter mobilization efforts. Digital outreach methods, combined with a new vote-tallying system, have been a particularly challenging transition for older immigrants, Shih said, as they’ve been “voting in one specific way for the last 40 to 50 years.”

To educate voters about ranked-choice voting — and the importance of picking five candidates instead of just one — the organization produced a tutorial video that has been translated into multiple Asian languages, including Mandarin, Tagalog and Bangla. It also organized a mayoral forum in which candidates discussed the most pressing issues for the Asian American electorate, including initiatives to combat anti-Asian hate, support small businesses and create more culturally competent services. 

Shih added that the number of high-profile Asian American candidates running for public office this year — from Yang for mayor and Felicia Singh and Jaslin Kaur for City Council — could also boost turnout from voters of Asian descent. When state Sen. John Liu ran for comptroller in 2009, Shih said, participation from the group spiked.

But there’s still a long way to go for Asian Americans to be fully engaged in the electoral system.

“One of the key things we want to do is to make it so that Asian American turnout is not dependent on having Asian American candidates in an election,” Shih said. “We want people to recognize they already have sway in determining the result of the election.”

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