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Vote Your Voice: In Georgia, grant will mobilize and educate Asian Americans about new voter suppression law

By all accounts, the 2020 presidential election demonstrated significant gains in political participation among the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community.

Nearly 60% of Americans of Asian descent voted in the 2020 election, up from about 49% in 2016. Among racial or ethnic groups in the U.S., that increase trailed only Pacific Islanders.

In Georgia, those voters contributed to a surge in turnout among voters of color.

But as the midterm elections approach, access to the ballot for many AAPI voters and other Georgians of color is in doubt following the 2021 passage of a sweeping voter suppression law known as SB 202. Among the law’s many new voting restrictions are limits on the use of mail-in ballots and absentee ballot drop boxes.

Two-thirds of AAPI voters used mail-in voting and ballot boxes during the 2020 presidential election, more than any other nonwhite voting demographic, according to the Pew Research Center. And one-third of Georgia’s AAPI community has limited English proficiency.

To help mobilize AAPI voters and educate them about the new voting rules, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Vote Your Voice initiative recently awarded a $75,000 grant to Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta (Advancing Justice-Atlanta), following a $250,000 grant in 2021.

“While Asian Americans are emerging as one of the fastest-growing voter segments in Georgia, our communities are facing vigorous attempts by lawmakers and certain interest groups to disenfranchise voters of color, including AAPI voters,” said Meredyth Yoon, litigation director for Advancing Justice-Atlanta and a former SPLC lawyer. “Now as much as ever, the importance of ensuring access to the ballot cannot be overstated.”

Advancing Justice-Atlanta is among 39 voter outreach organizations across the Deep South that are receiving more than $4.6 million in funding as part of the new round of Vote Your Voice grants announced last month. The initiative is a partnership between the SPLC and the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta to increase voter registration, participation and civic engagement among communities of color in the Deep South.

The SPLC has pledged $100 million to support Vote Your Voice through 2032.

Targeting voters

The new Georgia law targets people like Asian Americans Steven Paik, Deepum Patel, Nora Aquino, Angie Hang Tran and her elderly mother Thao Tran, and Anjali Enjeti-Sydow.

All six voted by mail-in ballot in 2020. Paik, now 70 and of limited English proficiency, used Advancing Justice-Atlanta’s Korean language vote-by-mail information to complete and submit his mail-in ballot.

Now the six people are among plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging SB 202, which was passed by lawmakers and signed by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp in the wake of President Joe Biden’s win and the Democratic takeover of Congress.

Advancing Justice-Atlanta will use its $75,000 Vote Your Voice grant to close a budget gap stemming from its increased 2022 midterm “get out the vote” (GOTV) mobilization activities. These efforts include additional staff, the development of 15 new organizing projects, the collection of granular data and expansion of the group’s geographic scope from five to 10 targeted counties where the AAPI community is growing fastest.

The organization is partnering with other nonprofits to add bus tours to six additional Southern Georgia cities for a total of 10 to 15. This face-to-face multilingual canvassing of more remote AAPI and Latinx communities will help the group learn more about potential voters and their voting behavior, and hence be more effective at mobilizing voters.

For instance, more specific ethnic voter data will enable the organization to learn what languages people prefer to speak in different neighborhoods. While Korean is the third most used language in Georgia after English and Spanish, the state’s AAPI community is diverse and includes notable populations of Indian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Filipino, Burmese, Bengali and Pakistani heritage, each with their own languages and distinct dialects.

“There are different reasons why people don’t vote in smaller elections, including lack of outreach and political education,” said Phi Nguyen, Advancing Justice-Atlanta’s executive director. “If you didn’t grow up within the U.S. political system or have a generational history of voting within your family, voting is likely not embedded in your upbringing as something that’s important to do. But we’ve generally found that people are receptive if you invite them into the process, especially if you're able to do so in the language they prefer.”

Voter intimidation

Not only do AAPI voters have to face new barriers to the ballot box under SB 202, many are concerned about voter intimidation at the polls, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic emerged and some politicians, including former President Donald Trump, called the coronavirus the “Chinese virus.”

Hate crimes targeting Asian Americans have soared in recent years. The most recent FBI hate crime report, released last October, found that hate crimes against them rose 73% in 2020. The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernadino documented a 164% increase in 16 of the country’s largest cities and counties from the first quarter of 2020 to the first quarter of 2021.

During the 2020 elections, harassment and intimidation against voters of color were widely reported.

In Georgia, some AAPI voters and their interpreters felt frustrated and intimidated by poll workers who delayed voters from casting ballots because they were “confused” about whether the law allowed them to have interpreters. Nonpartisan poll monitors with Advancing Justice-Atlanta had to explain to poll workers that since all elections on Nov. 8, 2020, were federal, interpreters of voters’ choice were allowed.

During the upcoming midterms, Advancing Justice-Atlanta will have some 100 volunteers to help protect voters, doubling the number of counties in its election protection program. The group will also provide funding, technical assistance and mentorship to grassroots partners across the state to extend election protection efforts and foreign-language interpretation to other racial and ethnic groups.

Over the longer term, the group and its partners that work on hate crime prevention and protection will unveil a “rapid response network” that’s now in development.

Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta staff
Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta will use its Vote Your Voice grant to expand its outreach in areas with fast-growing AAPI populations. Pictured, Advancing Justice-Atlanta Executive Director Phi Nguyen, holding sign, and AAPI organizers at the Georgia Capitol. (Credit: Courtesy of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta)

After the election, through late April when the grant period expires, Advancing Justice-Atlanta will focus on year-round organizing and preparing Georgians to vote in the next elections. Its Organizer Academy will continue to develop future leaders, particularly among people of color in the South, giving them a solid foundation in political movements, education and history. And its seven-month-long Georgia Leadership Lab program will train immigrant rights advocates to use narrative storytelling about Asian Americans and immigrants to empower their communities.

“People understand that there is a lot at stake,” Nguyen said. “We know that from the conversations we have with people. People don’t need to be convinced about the importance of voting. People are disillusioned by leaders, and they see voting as a way to effect change. Asian Americans have seen their power and can impact election outcomes.”

Here is a look at the other Vote Your Voice grant recipients in Georgia and how they are using their additional funding: 

ProGeorgia – Grant amount: $120,000

ProGeorgia’s motto, “Values. Voices. Votes.” accurately captures the mission of the 11-year-old, nonpartisan, civic engagement group. The organization distributes funds to 49 Georgia grassroots nonprofits to advance voter engagement and to coordinate and collaborate on policy, advocacy, programs and resources.

This year’s Vote Your Voice grant of $120,000 will support the organization’s recently launched Georgia Polling Project, which targets rural, Black and Brown communities typically overlooked by voter engagement nonprofits in favor of the Atlanta metro area. Canvassers using computer tablets purchased specifically for the project will speak face to face with rural residents and will text, call and email potential voters to collect data about them, such as their commitment to vote in coming elections and what issues they care about most. The data will then be uploaded to a website for partner access.

“Pollsters and research agencies haven’t taken a systematic approach to this kind of direct targeting and relationship-building,” said Hersheda Patel, ProGeorgia data director and project lead for the polling initiative.

“This is very important work that will help us get out the vote in a targeted way. We are appreciative of the [SPLC] investment in building a better, more nuanced way of doing this work.”

GALEO – Grant amount: $75,000

The Latinx electorate in Georgia may be outpacing this demographic’s voting turnout across the U.S. as a whole, but young Latinx voters remain the least likely to vote among them, according to GALEO CEO Jerry Gonzalez. That’s why GALEO’s SPLC grant of $75,000 will focus on strengthening Latinx youth voter participation in the coming midterms and beyond. GALEO will increase local, bilingual organizing staff and canvassers to register voters, increase voter knowledge and combat misinformation at more public events in more communities.

“Political campaigns tend to ignore people who don’t vote,” Gonzalez said, referring primarily to young people. “That’s why we focus on them, because they are a force that needs to be respected.”

GALEO will conduct a massive, in-person GOTV campaign at locations where young people congregate – such as festivals, grocery stores, college campuses and high schools and going door-to-door to find students who will be 18 and eligible to vote by Nov. 8. The organization will also engage young people on TikTok and Instagram.

“Latinx people represent 4.1% of the electorate and at over 385,000 strong, enough to swing a competitive statewide election,” Gonzalez said, “and their voice can make a difference in the electoral process.”

Latino Community Fund – Grant amount: $51,500

Gigi Pedraza, director of the Latino Community Fund (LCF Georgia), cites many acts of intimidation against Latinx voters in Georgia.

“If they [voters] are speaking in a foreign language, they are told by others to ‘shut up.’ I’ve been told I have ‘no right to be there’ [when helping limited English proficient and hearing-impaired voters]. We have been video-recorded and approached by state inspectors challenging our right to be there.”

Georgia’s voter suppression law SB 202 poses a threat to limited English proficient voters because of its complexity and lack of clear implementation guidance. (The SPLC is among the organizations representing LCF Georgia and additional plaintiffs in their suit against the new law.)

Naturalized U.S. citizens who fear violating the law by bringing their own water to the polls, for example, may not turn out to vote. The law criminalizes the distribution of water and snacks within 150 feet of voters standing in line.

LCF Georgia will regrant a portion of its Vote Your Voice funding to members working in election protection mobilization and youth voter outreach. The nonpartisan organization has 39 Latinx member organizations. Ten of them work in voter mobilization, election protection and education efforts.

“The story of the Latino community is the story of turning out despite the challenges we have had,” Pedraza said. “They turned out during COVID, and they will continue to vote.”

Cobb Collaborative – Grant amount: $15,000

Cobb Collaborative Executive Director Irene Barton says the link between voting and improved mental and physical health of underserved communities is clear.

“Research tells us that communities with high levels of civic engagement have lower crime, better health outcomes and greater economic resilience,” Barton said.

The organization’s intensified push to mobilize voters evolved from its Get Out the Count campaign for the 2020 U.S. Census. Cobb Collaborative has added staff to engage young voters at colleges and high schools and hired interns for campus voter registration drives and nonpartisan voter education events this fall.

Part of a network of 3,000 local and state partners, the organization is reaching formerly incarcerated people who are eligible to vote after completing probation and parole and registering. The nonprofit supports local NAACP chapters and churches on the Souls to the Polls campaign. Its $15,000 grant from Vote Your Voice will help fund these initiatives.

“Many people are registered but don’t vote,” said Kaitlyn Ball, Cobb Collaborative’s Vote Your Voice coordinator. “They say the system is rigged and their vote doesn’t matter. We tie their understanding of where politicians stand on issues to their interests – local parks, schools and health care. Everything ties back to voting.”

Peach Concerned Citizens – Grant amount: $6,000

This economic, social and climate justice nonprofit is a model for the “hyperlocal” approach to getting out the vote: persuading the citizens of Crawford, Macon, Peach and Taylor counties to vote at rates 15% higher than the previous election.

To meet its goal, Peach Concerned Citizens (PCC) modified its voter outreach engagement in 2020 when it shifted its focus from Black male voters, who showed significant voting gains from 2016 to 2020, to all its citizens. Its $6,000 grant will help PCC reach overlooked voters at assisted living facilities, nursing homes and low-income housing complexes. PCC will target workers unable to register to vote during regular hours, such as factory and agricultural workers and people who are incarcerated, and it will expand outreach to local college campuses and high schools. In collaboration with BlueLabs Analytics, PCC will digitally track outreach efforts post-election to determine their efficacy.

“This organization has benefited from more than just the funds,” said CEO Kattie Kendrick. “The Southern Poverty Law Center and Vote Your Voice gave PCC more credibility. The application process caused PCC to take a more in-depth and expansive review of the organization’s goals and needs of the community.”

Fair Count – Grant amount: $90,000

Fair Count, the Georgia-based voting rights organization founded in 2019 by Stacey Abrams, is using all $90,000 of its 2022 Vote Your Voice funding to deepen organizing efforts in rural Georgia in conjunction with its Vote-365 initiative. The initiative, launched on Nov. 8, 2021, is named for 365 days of voter education and mobilization.

Fair Count conducts traditional voter outreach, including face-to-face canvassing, in-depth, one-on-one conversations, and distribution of bilingual voter education literature. This month, the organization will launch a 45-county bus tour to educate and mobilize Black and Brown people, with a goal of reaching 40,000 low-propensity/high-opportunity voters to help ensure their voices are heard.

Fair Count uses vote share gap (VSG) data to guide its efforts. It is creating a VSG dashboard to provide access to county-level data for Black and Brown people in 12 Southern states and will eventually cover all 50 states.

“If you live in a county where 30% of registered voters are Black, you’d expect them to cast 30% of the votes,” said Fair Count President Jeanine Abrams McLean, Ph.D. “The vote share gap is higher in BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) communities. White communities are overrepresented in elections. Our goal is to shrink the vote share gap so that there is equitable representation.”

Photo at top: Advancing Justice-Atlanta staff and volunteers outside a polling place. The organization has been awarded a $75,000 grant from Vote Your Voice, an initiative by the SPLC and the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta to increase voter registration and participation among communities of color. (Credit: Courtesy of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta)