Reckoning With Georgia’s Increasing Suppression of Asian American Voters

As AAPI’s become a more powerful, Democrat-leaning voting bloc, efforts to keep them from the polls intensify.

Anjali Enjeti | Longreads | December 2018 | 18 minutes (4620 words)

 

Early on November 6, Election Day, Kavi Vu noticed that some voters appeared distressed as they exited Lucky Shoals Park Recreation Center, one of five polling places in Gwinnett County, Georgia. A volunteer with the nonprofit, nonpartisan civil rights organization Asian Americans Advancing Justice — Atlanta (“Advancing Justice”), Vu had been standing outside to answer questions about voting and offer her services as a Vietnamese translator.

When she began asking the mostly African American, Asian American and Latinx voters about their voting experiences, she learned that after 2.5 hour wait times, many of them had voted via provisional ballots.

Why? As it turned out, Lucky Shoals was not their correct voting location. “A lot of people had lived in Gwinnett County their entire lives and voted at the same location and all of the sudden they were switched up to new location,” Vu said.

So when poll workers offered voters the option of voting at Lucky Shoals with provisional ballots, rather than driving elsewhere to wait in another line, the voters took them up on it. They left with I’m a Georgia Voter stickers, and printed instructions for how to cure their ballots. But poll workers didn’t verbally explain to the voters that they’d need to appear at the county registrar’s office within three days to cure their ballots, nor did the poll workers make it clear that the votes would not count at all if the voters failed to do so. What’s more, as the day wore on, poll workers ran out of the provisional ballot instructions altogether.

Vu was alarmed. In an attempt to reduce the number of voters using provisional ballots, she began offering to help voters locate their correct polling place using the Secretary of State website. That’s when poll workers repeatedly began confronting her about her presence outside of the polling place. “They told me to stop speaking with voters in line, even after I explained what I was doing.”

By mid-afternoon, Vu counted some 100 voters who had wrongly reported to Lucky Shoals. When she finally left eight hours after arriving, she was “heartbroken,” over the dreadful conditions at the polling place and the number of votes by minority voters that would likely never be counted.

***

Elsewhere in Gwinnett County, Mohammed Shahid appeared at his usual polling place at noon only to be told that his name did not appear in the voter registration system. Shahid, who speaks fluent Bengali but only limited English, explained as best as he could that he had been casting ballots successfully at the same location for years, that he voted in-person for Clinton in 2016 and absentee in the primary election just a few months earlier. The poll worker told him there was nothing she could do. She turned him away, and failed to offer him a provisional ballot, as is required.

A lot of people had lived in Gwinnett County their entire lives and voted at the same location and all of the sudden they were switched up to new location.

Shahid felt that hands were tied. “I left the voting place without voting,” he told me over the phone. “I have a language issue. What else could I do?”

***

Peggy Xu and Arah Kang were both volunteers for Jon Ossoff’s campaign for the 6th district congressional seat last year and Stacey Abrams’ campaign for Georgia governor this year. Xu began to panic when she didn’t receive an absentee ballot by late October. On the 24th, she contacted the Fulton County Election Board and was emailed an affidavit cancelling the first absentee ballot. She then filled out and returned an application for a second absentee ballot. She was assured her second ballot would be mailed to her Washington, DC, residence, where she is temporarily living, by October 29, one week prior to the November 6 election. It never came.

Kang, a college senior in New England, finally received her absentee ballot a few days before the election. She immediately filled it out and expedited it back to the Fulton County Elections office. According to the Secretary of State website, it was never received.

Both Xu and Kang had successfully voted via absentee ballot for the 2016 presidential election, and in-person for the 2017 sixth district special election. When they posted about their frustrations on Facebook, they received a flood of messages from friends and friends of friends, mostly millennial minority voters in Fulton and Gwinnett Counties, all of whom supported Abrams — who never received their absentee ballots. Within 48 hours, they created a database of 40 disenfranchised voters. Most of the voters had taken great pains to follow up with their election board offices multiple times in an attempt to track down their absentee ballots. None were able to vote.

“We compiled this data in only two days,” said Xu. “If a list like this was compiled for the whole state, imagine how many people would be on it.”

“Forty people is not a hiccup,” said Kang. “It’s a wake-up call.”

***

On October 15, the first day of early voting, my phone started buzzing almost nonstop with messages from AAPI friends. The line is too long I have to go back to work. The voting place shut down because the computers aren’t working. A friend told me the machine switched her vote from Kemp to Abrams — what if this happens to me? They’re telling me I’m at the wrong voting place. I spent hours trying to help them sort out various issues online at the Secretary of State website and through the voter protection hotline.

For the past 11 years, I’ve lived and voted in Johns Creek, Georgia, a northern suburb of Atlanta with a 25% Asian American population. These voters reached out to me because I had spent most of 2018 volunteering for Democratic campaigns. I had knocked on their doors, texted them to remind them about the election, invited them to my home to meet candidates or discuss strategies for turnout.

But the number of issues they were having when trying to vote? I had never before seen anything like it.

***

Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) were the fasted growing racial group in the South between 2000 and 2010, and in Georgia the AAPI population has exploded. Since 2000, it has grown by 131% to over 480,000. Historically, though, AAPI voters have had one of the lowest voter turnouts among racial minorities. For the 2016 presidential election, it was around 49% nationwide, below white and Black voters and slightly ahead of Latinx voters. But in Georgia, voter turnout was 52% for that election. Foreign born Asian Americans tend to have a higher voter turnout than U.S. born.

Of far greater importance are the reasons for lower turnout. They may include a general failure to mobilize AAPI voters, the minimal contact political candidates make with AAPI voters, or language barriers. In Georgia, over 40% of limited English proficiency individuals speak an AAPI language. And because they speak dozens of languages, including Tagalog, Korean, Mandarin and Vietnamese — advocacy groups must find translators for several languages to assist them.

Over the years, especially recently, Atlanta-area Asian American organizations have launched vigorous voter drive programs to increase turnout for elections. The result? Some 6,400 AAPI statewide registered in 2014, and another 6,500 registered in 2016.

Despite these impressive gains in electoral power, the voting rights of all minority voters have been drastically impeded since the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965. States, like Georgia, with a history of voter suppression no longer require “preclearance” from federal courts or the Department of Justice to alter voting procedures. Shelby County v. Holder allowed Brian Kemp — who will be sworn in as Georgia’s governor in January 2019, and who became Secretary of State in 2010 — to ramp up his suppression of minority voters.

He first strengthened the “exact match” policy, which required that signatures on voter registrations mirror the signatures on identification from the Georgia Department of Driver Services or the Social Security Administration. Many times, the discrepancies between signatures are minor — missing hyphens, transposed letters, the day’s date instead of birth dates, or nicknames signed for legal names. But because Asian Americans’ and Latinx’s names don’t always neatly conform to romanization (one first, one middle, one last name), the requirement of exact match disparately impacted them.


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Kemp’s more egregious version of exact match resulted in the purge some 35,000 voters between 2013 and 2015, over 76% of whom were African American, Latinx, and Asian American voters. African Americans were eight times more likely and Latinx and Asian American voters were six times more likely to be kicked off the rolls than white voters. Civil rights groups sued the state; in a settlement, Kemp froze the program,restoring all 35,000 to the voting rolls.

But Kemp didn’t slow down. To the contrary, he accelerated his suppressive tactics, purging half a million voters from the rolls on a single day in July 2017, 107,000 purportedly because of Georgia’s “use it or lose it policy,” which disenfranchises voters for allegedly not voting in the past three years. (Though voters have come forward to state that Kemp attempted to purge them, even though they voted regularly). Another analysis found that Kemp purged some 300,000 voters for purportedly no longer living at the same address — even though these voters never moved. The vast majority of voters affected were minority voters.

A month before November 6, Kemp froze 53,000 “pending” applications due to discrepancies under a new version of the “exact match” law. Though most of the pending registrations could be cured easily with photo identification at polling places, 3,000 were held up due to potential “citizenship issues.”

One of them was an 80-year-old Vietnamese woman, who Cam Ashling, founder of Georgia Advancing Progress PAC, attempted to take to vote during early voting. When she tried to pull up the voter’s information on the Secretary of State website, Ashling learned she had been flagged because of exact match, and that they had to drive to the other side of Gwinnett County to appear in person at the Voter Registration and Elections Office with her naturalization papers — before she could cast a ballot. “This is a major burden on Asian American voters, especially when it’s the state’s fault,” said Ashling. Local civil rights organizations sued the State of Georgia again — now one of multiple times over exact match over the past several years — and won, including an injunction that allowed those voters to vote with proof of citizenship.

At about the same time, Gwinnett County, a majority minority county with 12% AAPI voters, began rejecting absentee ballots at a rate of 8.5%. (By comparison, Fulton County, the largest in Georgia, had rejected only 1.7% of its absentee ballots.) African Americans’ ballots were rejected four times more often than whites’ ballots. Asian Americans’ ballots were rejected six times more than whites’ ballots. According to Victoria Huynh of Center for Pan Asian Community Services, Inc. (CPACS), a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, many AAPI voters were not notified that their ballots were rejected. “They were stunned,” she said. “They had no idea there was an issue with their votes until our organization contacted them.”

Kemp, the Republican gubernatorial candidate who oversaw his own race, finally resigned as Secretary of State two days after Election Day. Neither Stacey Abrams, down less than two percentage points, nor Carolyn Bordeaux, the Democratic candidate for the heavily Asian American seventh congressional district, overcame their opponents’ leads. Kemp’s merciless purging and blocking of minority voters, coupled with Georgia’s outdated, hackable voting machines, means Georgia voters will never know who veritably won the gubernatorial and seventh congressional district races. And voters like Xu, Kang, and Shahid are left wondering whether votes like theirs, had they been counted, would have changed the outcome of the election.

Despite these impressive gains in electoral power, the voting rights of all minority voters have been drastically impeded since the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

It may be easy to forget the victories with these tough losses, but the victories, especially against exact match, have been substantial. A few days before the December 4th runoff election, Advancing Justice challenged a Georgia law that required that translators assisting voters be close family members, caretakers or voters registered in the same precinct. (Some half-a-million voters in Georgia have limited English proficiency, most of whom are Asian American or Latinx.) Acting Secretary of State Robyn Crittenden, appointed after Kemp’s post-election day resignation, settled outside of court. Voters will now be able to select any translator of their choosing to assist them at the polls.

Still, the road to the 2020 election is guaranteed to be a brutal one. “We remain concerned of continuing efforts by our state to suppress the voices of immigrant communities — especially as they become more empowered to politically engage,” said Phi Nguyen of Advancing Justice. “Our elected officials must step up and do more to protect the rights of all voters.”

***

Georgia’s AAPI voters are steadily turning bluer. According to exit polling conducted by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), 61% of Asian Americans in Georgia voted for Barack Obama’ second term in 2012. And though a smaller number, 55%, supported Democratic Jason Carter for governor over Republican Nathan Deal in 2014, out of 560 respondents, a whopping 71% percent of AAPIs in Georgia voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

If we break this down by ethnicity, Bangladeshi-Americans and Pakistani-Americans are the most reliable progressive voters in Georgia, with 97% and 96% casting their vote for Hillary Clinton. (Given that Bangladesh and Pakistan are Muslim majority countries, and that Trump made xenophobia and Islamophobia central to his campaign, it’s easy to guess why.) At the other end of the spectrum, Chinese and Vietnamese voters supported Clinton at 61% and 59% respectively.

The trend toward progressivism seems to have continued for this year’s midterms, where 79% of Georgia’s AAPIs (revised slightly down from an initial report) voted for Abrams for governor. For comparison, the Democratic AAPI constituency in Georgia is more left than the constituency in Texas, where 64% voted for Democrat Beto O’Rourke for U.S. Senate; Florida, where 71% voted for Democrat Andrew Gillum for governor; and in Nevada, where 68% voted for Democrat Jacky Rosen for U.S Senate. The progressive AAPIs of Michigan were the only group that came out ahead, with 91% voting for Democratic Gretchen Whitmer for governor.

Prior to the 2016 election, I had no idea that so many AAPIs in red Georgia were Democrats. Members of my community in Johns Creek rarely discussed elections. We don’t do politics, was a popular refrain. In the years before Trump, progressives largely kept their views to themselves. I was one of the only ones openly horrified by Sarah Palin and birthers.

This apathy began to dissipate during the 2017 sixth district special election when the AAPI community became more organized. During his first term in the State House, Representative Sam Park, the first Democratic Asian American and the first openly gay person elected to the Georgia legislature, headed the Asian American outreach effort for the Ossoff campaign. This was one of the first times, if not the first time, that a Democratic campaign in Georgia poured significant resources into engaging the AAPI constituency.

I worked with Representative Park as a community volunteer to help get Democratic AAPI voters to the polls. This is how I came to understand the untapped power of Georgia’s progressive AAPIs electorate. A meet and greet at my house with Jon Ossoff brought 75 people, mostly Asian Americans. An outdoor event for AAPIs on Mothers’ Day at a local club house brought over 250. Gatherings at mosques, temples, and at Asian restaurants garnered hundreds of AAPI Ossoff supporters.

Over four months, I knocked on the doors of several hundred houses in Johns Creek, most of them belonging to Asian Americans. (This is otherwise known as canvassing.) At first, voters quickly closed the door after accepting Ossoff campaign literature. As the election approached, they lingered on their porches and asked me questions about voting, the election, the candidate. By the time early voting for the runoff election rolled around, three weeks before Election Day, they couldn’t wait to get to the polls. Neighbors who told me they didn’t see the point of voting voted. Friends who used to skip every election except presidential elections voted. Many of them voted for the first time. And getting them on board resulted in a chain reaction — they rounded up their own reluctant voter friends and got them to the polls.

This evolution in commitment and engagement in the AAPI community was astounding.

One the day of the election, I was stationed outside of my polling place as a volunteer poll watcher in a folding chair under the shade of a tree sipping water. I had been up at 6 AM placing signs along the street leading up to the polling place. I hadn’t slept much over the past few weeks.

A car pulled up to the curb in front of me. An elderly Pakistani American woman, an Ossoff supporter I’d met once before, jumped out of the driver’s seat, ran to the other side, and guided a much older Pakistani woman out of the car. They moved slowly up the stairs, arm in arm, and entered the building.

Maybe I was just exhausted. But as soon as the door shut behind them I started crying.

***

After a deep dive into the data, I learned something unfortunate. Though progressive Asian Americans built a sturdy infrastructure for engagement leading up to Election Day, the number of Asian Americans who voted for Ossoff versus Republican Karen Handel is unknown.

Still, when 2018 rolled around, the Democratic AAPI model for the sixth district special election could be dusted off and implemented at a statewide level. Grace Choi led this effort for the Democratic Party Coordinated Campaign, as the AAPI constituency director. Those of us who volunteered our hearts out for the Ossoff campaign began mobilizing again. We organized meet and greets with candidates, canvassing events, and rallies that centered the AAPI constituency.

For those of us working on the ground, the fact that 79% of Georgia’s Asian Americans ended up voting for Abrams (eight points more than the percentage that voted for Clinton two years earlier), coupled with the fact that Democrat Lucy McBath ousted Handel from the sixth district congressional seat only 18 months after Ossoff’s loss — wasn’t entirely out of left field.

But it was immensely rewarding all the same.

***

Unlike progressive AAPI voters, conservative AAPIs seem far more secure and outspoken in their political beliefs. Not long ago two Chinese American voters told me that because Trump supporters “are very vocal” in the Chinese American community, they oftentimes felt as if they were the only Democrats in the room. A conversation I had with an Indian-American neighbor a week later followed suit. “What can you do?” he told me. “Indians are Republicans and you can’t change their minds. Trust me, I’ve tried.”

Despite recent Democratic victories in Georgia, the perception of Asian Americans as conservatives appears to be a deeply entrenched one. Perhaps because not too long ago, many Asian Americans were Republican. The shift of AAPI voters from Republican to Democrat didn’t begin until after 1992, and didn’t gain significant momentum until 2008, when the majority of every Asian ethnic group in the state voted for Obama.

What’s more, for a while, prominent AAPI elected officials dominating the media — like former Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal and former South Carolina governor and outgoing U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley — were Republican. And though several Democratic AAPI members of congress are currently leading the resistance — including Representative Ted Lieu, Senator Tammy Duckworth, Senator Mazie Hirono, Senator Kamala Harris, and Representative Pramila Jayapal — the assumption that Asian Americans are Republicans persists in the AAPI community.

How do we counter this narrative, especially at the state level? We elect more AAPIs to office.

The political history of Asian Americans in Georgia (whether Democrats or Republicans) is a relatively short one. Judge Alvin Wong of the Dekalb County State Court, holds the distinction of being the first Asian American elected to judge in the entire southeast. Republican Charlice Byrd served in the Georgia state house for eight years beginning in 2005. In 2008, Democrat Tony Patel, the current chair of the state Democratic Party’s AAPI caucus, ran (and lost) for a state house seat. In 2010, Rashid Malik ran for state senate and lost. (Malik ran again unsuccessfully in 2012 for the state house and in 2016 for the 7th district congressional seat.) Republican BJ Pak won his house seat in 2011, making him the first Korean American elected to the state legislature in either party, and served until 2017. In 2013, five Asian Americans ran for local offices and two won. In 2015, six ran for local offices and another two won.

Democratic Representative Sam Park’s historic November 2016 win was fueled, in part, by the two other Asian American women who helped to steer his campaign, his field director Pallavi Purkayastha and campaign manager Bee Nguyen. Park’s campaign left a vibrant legacy. Last year, Nguyen won the house district seat Abrams vacated to run for governor, becoming the first Vietnamese person elected to the Georgia legislature. Purkayastha, currently chief of staff to Representative David Dreyer, served as campaign manager for Nguyen’s race, and would head Democratic Angelika Kausche’s race for house district 50, flipping it blue for the first time.

Despite the dozen or so pending lawsuits against the state, Raffensperger has pledged to enforce Kemp’s policies, which will likely lead to the further erosion of the voting rights of all minority voters.

Three Asian Americans will be serving in the state legislature in 2019 — the most in Georgia’s history. All three are Democrats. Park will begin his second term, alongside Nguyen, who recently won her first full term, and Sheikh Rahman, who will begin his first term in the State Senate. Rahman is the first Muslim, and Bangladeshi American elected to state legislature; like Kausche, he is an immigrant.

Seeing is believing. To have more impact as a voting bloc in 2020, progressive Asian Americans will not only need to participate more in politics and civic engagement, they’ll need to recruit others in the community to do the same. “When we do not see ourselves reflected in the body elected to serve us, becoming politically engaged becomes more challenging,” said Nguyen. Rahman hopes to begin an AAPI caucus in the legislature, though his focus will remain on voter turnout. “Our main challenge is still how we can increase our folks at the polls.”

***

If Georgia’s progressive Asian Americans want to increase their political capital, they’ll need to continue to evolve as a forward-thinking, radically inclusive constituency. Because Republican AAPIs are getting bolder, even downright aggressive, in their tactics. One local Republican East Asian man I know routinely harasses Asian American women at Democratic events. Democrats don’t care about Asians! Why would you vote for them? Only Republicans care about Asians! He’s confrontational and belligerent, and when the women try to dodge him he tends to follow them around while spouting xenophobic rhetoric about immigrants entering the U.S. “the wrong way.” (He’s an immigrant himself.) I expect he’ll reappear at Democratic events in the months leading to the 2020 presidential election.

Staunch GOP AAPI voters are not uncommon. While the shift to more progressivism among Asian Americans in Georgia has been impressive, 18 percent of AAPI voters still supported Kemp with his shotgun, chainsaw and explosive political ads, despite the fact that many of their origin countries have among the lowest violent gun deaths in the world. We have miles to go before we have the same kind of Democratic turnout success as Black women, 97% of whom voted for Abrams.

In the Hindu Indian-American community, those who support Hinduvta or Hindu nationalism align themselves with the GOP primarily because of its Islamophobia. (Thirty-eight percent of Hindus in Georgia supported Trump in 2016, just one percentage point less than Catholics.) This, despite the fact that they may disagree with the GOP’s positions on guns and healthcare. “Resident Indian-Americans typically come from the dominant community in India,” said Suresh Kolichala, a Hindu-Indian who has been an active volunteer with Democratic campaigns. “When they come to America, they still feel they are part of the dominant community. They can easily identify with the problems of whites because back home in India, they face criticism from the liberal voices about oppressed sections of people.”

Regardless of national origin or ethnicity, Republican AAPIs in Georgia hit the ground running for elections. They throw money at GOP candidates, host lavish fundraisers, and frequently post photos of themselves posing with Republican candidates on social media. Nonpartisan organizations ensure that GOP candidates attend (and oftentimes speak at) their cultural functions, even at risk of jeopardizing their nonprofit status. In other words, conservative AAPIs are winning the publicity game and don’t shy away from promoting their candidates or proclaiming their loyalty. And their loyalty is being rewarded. As of this writing, two Republican Asian Americans are serving on Kemp’s transition team.

Progressive AAPIs are going to need to step up their game to stay ahead. What’s more, they’re going to need to align and uplift Indigenous, Black, and other people of color and reclaim and re-imagine the model minority myth as an unapologetic progressivism that condemns all forms of bigotry. They’re going to need to come out for Black Lives Matter and asylum seekers, the poor, the LGBTQIA+ community, and the disabled.

And above all else, progressive AAPIs must examine their own internalized prejudice. Too many are anti-Black, homophobic, transphobic, and xenophobic. They spout false Republican talking points about the “migrant caravan” and the need to come to the U.S. “the right way.” They ignore police violence against unarmed Black Americans, and too few have voiced their objections to the anti-gay Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a bill vetoed by former governor Nathan Deal, but which Kemp has said he will sign into law as long as it reflects the 1993 federal law.

This is no time to rest on our laurels.

***

The Indian festival of lights, Diwali, fell this year during the same week as the midterm election. In between texting hundreds of voters who might need to cure their provisional ballots, I picked up three boxes of cashew burfi and 80 pieces of naan at our local Indian restaurant for our neighborhood’s celebration in Johns Creek. In the intervening days, though we grew less optimistic about Abrams’ likelihood of becoming the next Georgia governor, we beamed about our historic wins. “We did it,” people exclaimed to one another.

After Ossoff’s loss last year, the same progressives at the Diwali party spooning paneer and biryani onto their plates grew even more determined. They donated to campaigns, canvassed and mobilized their networks to vote for Democrats straight down the ticket. We were now reaping the fruits of our labor — a blue wave, the first ever, for Johns Creek. Democrats here flipped the state house and senate seats, and McBath, whose 17-year-old son Jordan Davis was gunned down in Florida in 2012, bested Handel for the sixth district congressional seat. The trifecta of wins felt miraculous.

But the progressive AAPI community must be vigilant. In the December 4th runoff election for Secretary of State, the office responsible for Georgia’s myriad election issues, Republican Brad Raffensperger surpassed Democratic candidate John Barrow. Despite the dozen or so pending lawsuits against the state, Raffensperger has pledged to enforce Kemp’s policies, which will likely lead to the further erosion of the voting rights of all minority voters.

Still, one more city in Georgia is blue, and Asian Americans in Johns Creek played a significant role in making it happen. It’s not necessarily a revolution, but it’s a much needed spark.

* * *

Anjali Enjeti is an Atlanta-based journalist and critic whose work has appeared in The Nation, Newsday, The Washington Post, Al Jazeera, and elsewhere.

Editor: Sari Botton
Factchecker: Sam Schuyler