How AAPI Women Drove Community Turnout in the 2020 Election

Supermajority Education Fund

November 23, 2020

Several Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) advocacy groups say voter turnout in the community reached an all-time high during the 2020 election — and that early data shows a 310% increase in early votes cast by AAPI voters in 2020 compared to 2016. Experts say a key factor to that strong turnout was the organizing efforts of AAPI women, especially in swing states.

On November 18, the nonpartisan research group Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote (APIAVote) held a virtual press conference with organizers and advocacy groups from swing states across the country, and shared their finding that Asian American voter turnout in swing states was up by more than 12% just counting the early voting period alone. In every single battleground state, the [Asian American and Pacific Islander] early vote turnout surged relative to 2016 by more than any other group,” said Christine Chen, executive director of APIAVote. 

APIAVote also highlighted how crucial outreach to women and elders in AAPI communities was to achieving this turnout. “Women and femme-identifying folks are the civic engagement messengers our communities move on,” Laura Misumi, executive director of the Michigan-based group Rising Voices of Asian American Families, told reporters. 

AAPI women’s role as messengers was particularly crucial in swing states. Many community members were nervous about voting by mail, noted Nancy Nguyen, the executive director of the Philadelphia-based community organization VietLead, due to an unfamiliarity with the process, along with the impact of targeted misinformation campaigns surrounding mail-in voting. VietLead and other local community organizations worked to make sure Pennsylvania’s growing Asian American communities “were able to understand the process and get support in the process in the languages that they need,” Nguyen said. Several community advocates noted that language access was particularly critical in 2020, as thousands of Americans voted by mail for the first time, AAPI women served an important role in making sure that translators in a wide variety of languages — including Mandarin, Cantonese, Vietnamese, Korean, Bengali, and Urdu — were available to break down educational materials to other AAPI voters in an accessible way. 

Asian American women were also particularly crucial in Michigan when it came to reaching out to newer immigrant groups with limited English proficiency who faced barriers when it came to registering to vote. In particular, Misumi pointed to the role of volunteers serving as translators for Michigan’s growing Burmese community as members registered to vote, filled out the census, and received guidance on how to receive COVID-19 related assistance. “It kind of goes back to our overall organizing and base-building strategy of creating this leadership pipeline amongst Asian American women in our communities and really believing that Asian American women are the trusted messengers in the community,” said Misumi. “That’s how we’re going to have better contacts, better connections, and conversations with voters, particularly women voters.”

The fact that there was strong Asian American turnout amidst the challenges of 2020 was particularly encouraging because voter participation rates amongst Asian Americans have traditionally been much lower than other ethnic groups in the United States. Pew Research reported earlier this year that Asian American turnout has “historically been low” for decades, with only 49% of eligible voters voting in 2016.

Advocates hope that the strong voter engagement during the 2020 election season will lead to further growth in the future, particularly in Southern states like Georgia and South Carolina. Chavi Koneru, the executive director of North Carolina Asian Americans Together, observed that Asian American outreach in the South will be particularly important in years to come as those communities grow. Koneru noted that many of the voters she met with in the past few months were participating in their first election and that oftentimes it was conversations in the community that inspired them to register to vote.

“This is a really big deal for a community whose voices have been suppressed by the model minority myth, and further oppressed by the lack of recognition in the South while having to overcome the hurdles of a complex vote by mail process,” said Koneru. “I think that conversation shouldn’t be about what was on the ballot, and who won, but about the incredible progress we’ve made.”