“I would have done the same,” Andrew Yang assured the 100 or so listeners sitting in the yard below the porch on which he stood. “I’m one of you.” The small, socially distanced crowd sitting in the tony Atlanta neighborhood of Buckhead was mostly Asian American: Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Bangladeshi, Indian.
Yang was delivering the last lines of his opening anecdote, in which he imagined how Asian American people nationwide reacted when they first heard he was running for president: “What’s going on? We’re running for president now? Please, let this guy not be terrible!”
After the laughter died down, Yang delivered a more serious message: “I hope I helped activate the Asian American community to say, ‘Maybe I should be paying more attention to politics.’”
It was the first such event in Georgia for the entrepreneur and former Democratic candidate for president, after he bought what he said afterward was “a one-way ticket” to the state. His plans are to spend the weeks leading up to the January 5 special election exhorting groups like the one he addressed Sunday afternoon to get out and vote. What’s at stake is nothing less than the balance of power in the US Senate, with a rare two seats up for grabs and Democratic candidates the Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff polling competitively.
Though small, the audience Yang addressed was carefully chosen by Cam T. Ashling, the Democratic activist whose porch Yang was standing on. It included grassroots organizers, political donors, and the Asian American Democratic caucus in the Georgia legislature, which has grown from one to five since 2016. This year, it welcomes Michelle Au, who became the first Asian American woman to serve as state senator on November 3, after defeating GOP opponent Matt Reeves.
The event also served to launch the Georgia chapter of the Asian American Action Fund, a political action committee that supports progressive candidates nationwide—and which will be focusing on getting Asian American voters in Georgia to the polls for Warnock and Ossoff. Warnock was also at the event, and echoed several speakers when he said, “The whole country is watching, as Georgia rises up in this defining moment in American history.”
Asian American voters made Georgia history in the general election, said state Representative Bee Nguyen, who in 2017 became the state’s first Vietnamese American elected to the legislature. Their constituency nearly doubled in number from 2016, and contributed to flipping the only congressional seat, Carolyn Bourdeaux’s in the seventh district, from red to blue.
Those results have led a lot of Asian American leaders in the state, including those at Sunday’s event, to feel a dizzying sense of pride. “We were never in polls before; we were never considered a number to look at,” said Stephanie Cho, executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice–Atlanta. “When I saw the numbers, it was really inspiring to me.” Cho came to the phone amid efforts to organize dozens of volunteers to reach as many potential voters as possible in the coming weeks—in seven different languages. This includes registering new voters before December 7 and getting out the vote when early voting starts December 14.
Reporting in recent weeks has drawn attention to the need to disaggregate Latino populations from one another in efforts to reach potential voters, given the many different cultures and attitudes that fit under the umbrella implied by the term. But building the Asian American vote also includes communicating in different languages as well as understanding different cultures, said Tom K. Wong, political science professor at the University of California–San Diego. “More targeted outreach” is needed, he said, as “what works for Chinese-Americans may not work for Vietnamese-Americans, and so on.”
Using an algorithm he developed based on genealogy and last names, Wong has analyzed Georgia’s voter registration data and estimates that there are 274,000 Asian American and Pacific Islander voters in the state. The challenge: “How can we take the limited information in the voter file, and target voters according to language and culture?”
People working with voter data in political campaigns tend to be “pale, male, and stale,” Wong added. “They don’t see the nuance in voter files.”
Deborah Nguyen has been cold-calling potential voters for several months as a volunteer for Cho’s group. She has found that speaking Vietnamese to people from her native country has helped her to communicate basic information about registering to vote and where and how to cast a ballot. “Language is an obstacle,” she said. “They don’t have any clue,” she added, referring to some of the 10 percent or so who actually take her calls. “They don’t even know there’s an election.” Nguyen also said Vietnamese-Americans also receive a lot of misinformation in their native language, including the claim that Democratic candidates are Communists.
Nguyen, who lives in suburban Roswell and is not related to Bee Nguyen, said she was “so proud” after hearing about increased Asian American turnout in Georgia. “I felt like I was part of something, like we were actually having an effect.”
Bee Nguyen said that the tight time frame before the January 5 election makes it imperative to focus on Asian American voters who already cast ballots for President-elect Joe Biden and other Democratic candidates—and not apply too many resources to convincing conservative voters, many of whom are older and under the influence of disinformation campaigns. “In this election, it’s about trying to mobilize voters already on our side,” she said. One obstacle she and other Vietnamese Americans trying to inform potential voters face is that “there’s no term for ‘run-off’” in Vietnamese, she said.
Sri Kulkarni, an Indian American who failed in his bid to represent Texas’s 22nd Congressional District, was also at Ashling’s event Sunday. Kulkarni, who if elected would have been the first Asian American in Congress from Texas, ran a campaign that included outreach in 27 languages. Although unsuccessful, he said Asian American turnout nearly doubled in his district, which covers the south-central Houston metro area.
Kulkarni is helping implement what he calls “relational organizing” in the coming weeks in Georgia, based on “trying to figure out networks [of voters], instead of treating everyone as unknown.” The goal, he said, is to get at least one person or organization with relations to Asian American voters in each of Georgia’s 2,655 precincts.
There are several hundred Asian American volunteers from other states helping in the effort, said Kulkarni.
Ashling said increased Asian American turnout nationwide and interest in Georgia’s special election are due in part to Andrew Yang’s candidacy. “He broke the bamboo ceiling,” she said.
At the close of his talk Sunday, Yang told the audience, “I know you’ve gotten the message that we are somehow less than American. We need to put that to rest.
“We can lead. We can contribute. And yes, we can vote.”