Last Tuesday evening, Asian-American leaders from the nonprofit world and the de Blasio administration gathered at Flushing Library for a panel on how to increase civic engagement in the diverse Asian-American community.
Throughout the evening, volunteers were registering library customers to vote in several different languages.
Kicking off the event was Deputy Mayor J. Phillip Thomson, who recounted the “long and arduous” struggle for democracy in the country.
From the post-Revolutionary War era to today, he said, elite powers in the U.S. have worked to prevent a multi-racial coalition of poor and working people from emerging and voting in large numbers. Every generation has had to fight for the franchise, he said.
“You can’t inherit democracy,” Thomson said. “If you don’t fight for it, if you don’t participate in it, it will be taken away from you.”
Jerry Vattamala, director of democracy programs at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), said the national organization has polled Asian-American voters every year since 1988.
In addition to surveying who they voted for, their political party and if they faced any problems at the ballot box, the exit polls collect data on Asian-American voters. This past midterm, AALDEF surveyed 8,000 voters.
According to the data, the largest ethnic group of voters were Chinese, followed by Indian, Bangladeshi, Korean, Vietnamese and Filipino. The majority of those surveyed were foreign-born naturalized citizens.
While 20 percent had no formal education in the U.S., about one-third identified as limited English proficient.
Sixty-one percent of the voters were registered as Democrats, and 12 percent enrolled in the Republican Party. Twenty-four percent were not enrolled in any party, which has consequences for closed-primary states like New York, where the primary election often matters more than the general.
“One-fourth of the community is cut out from that process,” Vattamala said.
John Park, executive director of the MinKwon Center for Community Action, said voters have an obligation to not just vote for their own interests, but on behalf of those who don’t have the right to vote.
He noted that the Flushing-based organization has advocated for state policies like driver’s licenses for all and the Dream Act, both of which help the undocumented immigrant community.
“Don’t just vote for yourself, vote for your community, vote for people who can’t vote,” Park said. “This is really our pathway to building community power.”
The panel also addressed the importance of participating in the upcoming 2020 Census. Wayne Ho, president and CEO of the Chinese-American Planning Council, said there are 1.3 million Asian-Americans in New York City and over 2 million in the state.
Every person who doesn’t fill out the census will mean losing federal dollars for education, housing, transportation and more.
“We’re talking about over $4 billion for the city and over $7 billion for the state,” Ho said, “that we as Asian-Americans can bring to the table.”
While the proposed citizenship question on the census is being settled in court, Ho said all parties must make clear that people need to participate in the count.
As for voting, the nonprofit leader said there are about 800,000 Asian citizens in New York City, but about half a million are not registered to vote.
“That’s a lot of influence we can have,” he said. “We need to elect people who will look out for our interests and our issues.”
The results of the census will also impact redistricting for government representatives. Ho noted that there will be elections in 2023 after redistricting.
“They’re all up for re-election,” he said. “That’s where we want to encourage and get the message out.”