SCMP | Getting Out the Asian-American Vote
Illustration by by Lau Ka-kuen for the South China Morning Post

Illustration by by Lau Ka-kuen for the South China Morning Post

Getting out the vote: Asian-Americans a target group for US midterm election campaigns

Read article on South China Morning Post.

As the United States braces for what Democrats and Republicans alike are calling the most critical midterm elections in decades, voter turnout will be crucial.

At 6 percent of the US population, Asian-Americans don’t yet constitute a major national voting bloc. But they may well make a difference in local races.

One such race is in Southern California, in the 39th Congressional District. Covering parts of Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino counties, the 39th District is 30 per cent Asian-American.

Its Congressional seat is also open, as the district’s long-time Republican representative, Ed Royce, is retiring. Gil Cisneros, the Democrat, is a Navy veteran who became a philanthropist after winning US$266 million in the state lottery; the Republican candidate is Young Kim, a Korean-American state legislator who had worked for Royce.

Long considered Republican territory, the district voted for Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential candidate, in 2016 and recent polls have the two campaigns more or less tied, trading leads by one percentage point in each poll.

“It is a critique of the system that we even have to do what we’re doing,” AAAT’s Pan said. “We’re one attempt to try and mitigate the impacts of decades of misrepresentation … but there are still glaring gaps.”
— Vincent Pan, Asian-Americans Against Trumpism

Asian-American voters have historically turned out in support of Asian-American candidates, and to make up for his demographic weakness, Cisneros has campaigned frequently with Chinese-American Representative Judy Chu of California's 27th District.

Both campaigns are scrambling hard to get out the Asian-American vote. One way is WeChat, the Chinese-language social media platform.

Allen Chen, the Cisneros campaign’s deputy political director and outreach director for Asian-American and Pacific Islanders, said that two campaign staffers participate in local WeChat groups on Cisneros’s behalf. “Instead of forcing Chinese-Americans to adapt to our previously held messaging platforms [and] table blasts, we engage them on their channels,” he said.

Additionally, Chen said, the campaign has sponsored WeChat posts via a blog maintained by World Journal, a widely read Chinese-language newspaper aimed at Chinese immigrants in North America.

Patrick Mocete, campaign manager for Young Kim, says that Kim’s campaign is also active on the platform, with both Chinese-speaking staffers and volunteers advocating for the candidate, who is trying to become the first Korean-American woman elected to Congress, in group chats.

“A third of the district is Asian and a large part of that is the Chinese-American community,” Mocete said, “and Young has made a point of making this a part of the campaign.”

Cisneros’s campaign is being supplemented by the efforts of a volunteer-organised political action committee, Asian-Americans Against Trumpism (AAAT), which hopes to reach Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese voters with limited English skills by placing native-language ads in ethnic media and digital media, not only in the 39th District but in two other California districts as well.

In each, Asian-Americans make up statistically significant portions of the population. “Every single vote counts, and these districts can be won or lost by a couple hundred votes,” Vincent Pan, an AAAT organiser, said.

Nationally, civic and community groups have been working to increase Asian-American political participation for years. For these midterm elections, they have been joined by a number of more partisan efforts like AAAT.

Another group, the Asian-American Democratic Club (AADC) – which, despite its name, is primarily Chinese-American and more of a network than official club – was founded by Ling Luo, a Chinese-American businesswoman in Texas, in May 2016 to help coordinate the efforts of Chinese-American Democrats.

Monica Chen, who is organising AADC's efforts in California, said that AADC is coordinating with the Cisneros campaign. “The campaign team picked out about 10,000 Chinese speaking voters [and] we tried to reach them with phone banking, and text banking.”

AADC, which has 2,000 members in 18 chapters across the United States, has always depended on WeChat groups to coordinate editorial strategy and blog content among its writers, and chapter groups to share news and events among members.

Still, in 2016 WeChat, like Facebook and other social media, became infamous for how political misinformation proliferated, as a report published this year by the Tow Centre for Digital Journalism, “WeChatting American Politics: Misinformation, Polarization, and Immigrant Chinese Media,” found.

“Political parties believe that Chinese don’t participate at a high rate, and that’s like a vicious cycle, and they don’t mobilise them
— Janelle Wong, Professor of American and Asian-American Studies

Pro-Trump WeChat users were highly effective in leveraging its social interface, coordinating official accounts and groups. They published button-pushing (and sometimes verifiably false) content like “The Muslim Takeover of America” and “Obama encourages illegal immigrants to vote in the election” to their official accounts, then shared those articles in group chats, and even debated their merits with group members holding opposing views and, according to one writer, Xie Bin, used their opponents' arguments as the basis for further blog posts.

Today, AADC continues to share its writing on WeChat, but it is also doing more offline organising: attending rallies, fundraising for Democratic campaigns, and phone-banking to get out the Chinese-American vote.

“We’ve been trying to steer people away from WeChat,” Luo said. “We don’t want our strategies to be monitored or stolen by the Trump supporters who are hiding in our group.”

Besides, she sees a new fatigue for WeChat politicking: “Most people got tired of the debating and arguing or fighting.”

Asian-Americans are the fastest growing minority group in the US, Census data shows. But this potential political power is diminished by the community’s traditionally low voter turnout.

In 2016, only 49 percent of Asian-Americans voted – only 41 percent of Chinese-Americans – according to AAPI Data, a group that collects and analyses statistics about Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders. In comparison, 65.3 percent of non-Hispanic whites and 59.6 percent of African-Americans voted.

Low turnout leads to a cycle of underrepresentation, Janelle Wong, a professor of Asian-American studies at the University of Maryland, said. “Political parties believe that Chinese don’t participate at a high rate, and that’s like a vicious cycle, and they don’t mobilise them … even though it’s not true that Chinese are more interested in other things than politics.”

According to AAPI Data, there are 27 Congressional districts across the US in which Asian-Americans make up more than 8 percent of the population – in a tight race, more than enough to swing a vote.

Yet neither the Republican nor Democratic Party has made systematic efforts to directly engage Asian-Americans. This lack of outreach has consequences – both for Asian-American communities and the parties themselves. It means that Asian-American issues – or opinions on issues – aren't prioritised by lawmakers, while continuing the cycle of political disengagement.

“They could be … a prize for either of the two parties, because there's a big chunk of the Chinese community … that doesn't identify with either of the two major parties,” Wong said.

Smaller-scale volunteer-led efforts like Asian-Americans Against Trumpism and the Asian-American Democratic Club try to bridge that gap but these groups have neither the parties’ coffers nor their institutional resources.

“It is a critique of the system that we even have to do what we’re doing,” AAAT’s Pan said. “We’re one attempt to try and mitigate the impacts of decades of misrepresentation … but there are still glaring gaps.”

Now what? Read my follow-up report on the outcome of the CA-39 race, or see all of work for the South China Morning Post.