By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
It started with the Bruce Springsteen song, “We Take Care of Our Own,” playing in the background.
Then, one after another, Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Democratic leaders from Washington state appeared on the screen in a “virtual bus tour” in support of the Biden-Harris presidential campaign. They appealed for action to rally AAPI voters in the upcoming presidential election, arguing that issues crucial to their future would be decided and that they could help swing the election.
The future of the Affordable Care Act, hate crimes, and unemployment are all affecting AAPIs more deeply than ever, they said, and implored people to take action to spur voter turnout.
“Can you all imagine waking up knowing there is someone in the White House thinking of ways to heal?” asked Rep. Grace Meng (D-New York), who also joined the virtual event.
While AAPI turnout in past elections has been relatively low, getting them out to vote is crucial because they represent the fastest-growing segment of the population and now for the first time could tip key swing states, according to several of the participants.
“I am here to implore you to vote,” said Yo-Yo Ma, in a prerecorded message. “This is perhaps the most important time in our life that the Asian Pacific vote really matters.”
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, referring to vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris, said that it is also important to elect leaders that can understand the needs of the AAPI community in order to successfully advocate for them.
She cited the recent passage of a bill, which she promoted, which would provide federal aid for education and grants for South Asians with heart problems. South Asians make up 25% of the world’s population, but 50% of global cardiovascular deaths.
Both she and former Gov. Gary Locke criticized the Trump administration for its attacks on immigrants and said a Biden-Harris administration would reorient the country to its fundamentals.
“Immigration is also how many of our relatives have come,” said Locke. “Trump wants to cut that off.”
Jayapal lauded Harris for being the co-lead on a bill to provide free legal counsel after Trump issued a ban on Muslims entering the country.
“We not only strive for success but to leave our country better than it was before,” Harris, in a prerecorded message, said her mother from India told her.
Young people also need role models like Harris, said Meng.
“You can’t be what you can’t see,” she said.
At the same time, Biden and Harris would serve as moral exemplars, unlike the current administration, added Locke.
“Don’t we want a president and vice president that can be role models for our kids?” he asked.
On health care, if Trump wins the election and his efforts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act are successful, 2 million AAPIs would lose coverage, said Meng. At the same time, there are 2 million AAPI front line workers, who need a better response to the pandemic.
“Health care is most important, because our country is sick,” she said.
AAPIs have also been threatened by a massive upsurge in hate crimes during the pandemic.
And many Republicans have refused to support an anti-hate crimes bill sponsored by Harris, said Meng.
“The racism of Trump will come back to hurt the Asian community.”
Referring to past racist policies against Chinese Americans and Japanese concentration camps, state Sen. Joe Nguyen said AAPI voters needed to prevent such brutalities from recurring.
“We need leaders who won’t let this happen again,” he said. “Download the Vote Joe App and let them know. Or text VOTE JOE to 30330.”
On the economic front, the Trump administration’s response to hardship experienced by AAPIs has also been disastrous, said Locke. Prior to the coronavirus, Asian Americans had one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country, whereas now they have the second highest, he said.
Despite the urgency of these issues, challenges to getting AAPIs out to vote are formidable.
Port Commissioner Sam Cho emphasized that this is not a normal elections year because of the pandemic.
“The Democrats’ use of conventional grassroots door knocking is not an option this year,” he said. That’s why it is so crucial to reach voters through phone banking and other ways, such as texting.
“It is so crucial to get them out.” Cho asked AAPIs to commit to volunteering every week to make calls on behalf of the Biden-Harris ticket or to send texts encouraging voters.
On the surface, such a task might seem superfluous. The number of Asian American eligible voters has more than doubled over the last 20 years, growing by 139%, according to the Pew Research Center.
But this change reflects a growth in population, said Hong Qi, the internship director for United Chinese Americans (UCA), a non-partisan nonprofit that promotes voter education and registration.
Despite such growth, voter turnout nationally for Asian Americans in 2012 was only 49.3%, Qi said. Reasons for such a low turnout include the fact that some new immigrants come from countries without elections and so they don’t have a habit of voting. Language barriers also play an important role. In other instances, ongoing discrimination is an obstacle.
Former Tacoma mayor Marilyn Strickland, who is running for Congress and if elected would be the first Korean American there, shared a story of a Korean American couple in Georgia who brought an interpreter with them to vote. Although it was their legal right to do so, they were turned away. Eventually, they had to appeal to the manager of the polling station to be able to vote.
Moreover, reaching out to voters is essential, said state Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, since in recent elections surveys have shown “many eligible voters had not been contacted.”
Offering her own example as encouragement, she said she had made more than 2,000 calls several weeks ago and continues to make phone calls every weekend.
“We have helped to build America,” she said. “But this is not the America that our ancestors fought for and made.”
To make calls on behalf of the Biden-Harris campaign, go to mobilize.us/2020victory/event/334061.
Mahlon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.