By AYANNA ALEXANDER
WASHINGTON (AP) — For a century, the League of Women Voters in Florida formed bonds with marginalized residents by helping them register to vote—and, in recent years, those efforts have extended to the growing Asian American and Asian immigrant communities.
But a state law signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis in May would have forced the group to alter its strategy.
The legislation would have imposed a $50,000 fine on third-party voter registration organizations if the staff or volunteers who handle or collect the forms have been convicted of a felony or are not U.S. citizens.
A federal judge blocked the provision last week. But its passage reflects the effort by DeSantis, a Republican presidential candidate, and other GOP leaders to crack down on access to the ballot. Florida is one of at least six states, including Georgia and Texas, where Republicans have enacted voting rules since 2021 that created or boosted criminal penalties and fines for individuals and groups that assist voters. Several of those laws are also facing legal challenges.
In the meantime, voting rights advocates are being forced to quickly adapt to the changing environment. Before the ruling in Florida, for instance, the League of Women Voters started using online links and QR codes for outreach. It removed the personal connection between its workers and communities and replaced it with digital tools that are likely to become a technological barrier.
“If there’s not access, in terms of language, we can’t get to as many people, which particularly affects AAPI voters,” Executive Director Leah Nash said, referring to the state’s Asian American and Pacific Island population, which has grown rapidly and where more than 30% of adults have limited English proficiency. “If we just give someone our website or QR code to go register, we don’t know for sure if they’re doing it and we like to get as many people registered to vote as possible.”
In states where penalties are getting tougher, the developments have sowed fear and confusion among groups that provide translators, voter registration help and assistance with mail-in balloting—roles that voting rights advocates say are vital for Asian communities in particular.
In a number of states, language barriers already hamper access to the ballot for a population that has been growing rapidly. Asian, Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander populations grew 35% between 2010 and 2020, according to Census data. The new laws in mostly Republican-led states are seen by many voting groups as another form of voter suppression.
Yoon added that record turnout for the 2020 elections in Georgia influenced the Republican-dominated legislature to pass sweeping voter restrictions: “It’s not a coincidence,” she said.
In Texas, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill in June that raises the penalty for illegal voting to a felony, upping it from a misdemeanor charge that was part of a sweeping elections law passed two years earlier.
Alice Yi, who is Chinese American, used to help translate in Austin, Texas, but said the new law isn’t clear about whether good faith mistakes will be criminalized and worries that she could get into trouble by offering assistance.
Yi recalls being approached during a 2022 primary election by a man who was Vietnamese American and asked for help because he hadn’t voted before and didn’t speak English. She said she was immediately worried she could face consequences if she helped him.
“This is the fear I’m facing,” she said.
Now, she said, she will help her father vote, but no one else.
But voting rights supporters like Ashley Cheng—also in Austin—remain committed to reaching Asian voters, despite the threat of jail time.
Cheng, the founding president of Asian Texans for Justice, recalls discovering her mother was not listed in the voter rolls when she tried to help her vote in 2018. They never found out why she wasn’t properly registered. Advocates say this highlights flaws in the system and illustrates how volunteers are essential to overcoming them.
The group’s own research has found that roughly two-thirds of Asian voters in Texas were highly motivated to vote in the 2022 midterm elections. Cheng said that desire amplified her enthusiasm to help the community get its votes counted.
“It’s really easy to feel like, ‘Oh, I would love to just not try anymore,’” she said. “But, I think about people like my mom and so many others in the Asian diaspora who live in Texas who have that experience of wanting to vote but not being able to, for whatever reason, are not feeling like it’s accessible.”
For instance, some 34% of Asian American adults in Texas have limited English proficiency, according to 2022 data from Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote (APIA Vote), a nonpartisan Asian American and Pacific Islander advocacy group.
Farha Ahmed, an attorney in Texas, said the increased liability in helping these marginalized communities access the ballot box forced her to decide against continuing as an election judge, a position that administers voting procedures and settles disputes concerning election laws.
“There’s not a lot of resources and there’s not a lot of protection,” said Ahmed, who lives in Sugarland, just outside Houston. “Election judges want to help make it easy for people to vote, but with these new laws in place, they’re very unsure of where their liability is when they’re really just trying to do their best to help.”
Before Florida and Texas, Georgia lawmakers overhauled that state’s election laws.
A section of Georgia’s 2021 election bill made it a misdemeanor to offer a voter any money or gifts at polling places, a provision that included passing out water and snacks for those waiting in lines. Attempts to get a court to toss out the ban on snacks and water have so far been unsuccessful.
James Woo, the communications director at Asian Americans Advancing Justice- Atlanta, said he won’t even get his parents a drink of water while helping them with their ballots.
“It’s simple things like that, which would have been like a conversation starter or just like helping them throughout the process, might be viewed as something illegal I’m doing,” he said.