Advocates say Asian, Muslim voter turnout still a work in progress

by | Mar 6, 2016 | Uncategorized

Despite a big push by advocacy groups and signs of increased voter interest, turnout among Asian American and Muslim American voters seemed to be typically low in last week’s Virginia presidential primaries, activists say. Now, the focus turns to November.

Flurries of phone banking, community events and social media messages in a variety of languages drew some first-time primary voters and elicited better-informed responses from older immigrants than in the past, according to those who work with Asian Americans and Muslim American groups.

But the efforts also misfired at times, and those behind them are vowing to do better in November’s general election.

“We reached out the best we could, but we got a lot of wrong numbers and disconnects,” said Irene Bueno, a Filipina American lawyer and member of the Asian American and Pacific Islander Leadership Council, which is affiliated with Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.

Shekar Narasimhan, a businessman and political activist in McLean who recently co-founded an Asian American super PAC, said turnout appeared disappointingly poor even though many Asian Americans felt that the stakes in this primary were higher than usual.

“People made a lot of calls but we only reached about 30 percent of our potential voter base,” Narasimhan said. “We will have to quadruple that number by November and get up to 75 percent to reach the turnout we hope to achieve in Virginia.”

Across Fairfax County, which has the state’s largest number of Asian Americans and a sizable population of Muslim Americans, overall voter turnout in both the Democratic and Republican contests averaged about 21 percent. No official breakdown by ethnic group is available yet.

Across Virginia, many immigrants from Asia — a mix of Hindus, Christians, Muslims and Buddhists — are middle class and well educated, but they have tended to be shy or unenthusiastic about voting, with turnouts generally below 25 percent except for presidential elections. The largest groups are from China, India, the Philippines, Korea and Pakistan.

Abdul Rashid Abdullah, a Muslim American, served as chief election officer at a busy and ethnically diverse voting precinct in Herndon where turnout was about 25 percent. He said many people there “really felt it was important to vote,” including a noticeable number of first-timers.

Abdullah, who was involved in pre-primary voter outreach efforts at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS) in Sterling, said those efforts were eager but “not especially sophisticated. Now we are starting to get more strategic, looking more at who and where voters are. For the general election, we will be much better prepared.”

Among Muslim Americans who voted in the Sterling and Ashburn areas of Loudoun County, community leaders said, many were concerned by the harsh anti-Muslim rhetoric of Republican Donald Trump’s campaign and were motivated to express that through their votes.

“Emotions were high, and people wanted to vent their feelings,” said Syed Ashraf, an outreach volunteer at the ADAMS mosque. Trump won the state but trailed in Loudoun and most of the rest of Northern Virginia.

One Muslim lawyer who voted in Ashburn said her children did not want to go to the polls with her because they were nervous about encountering unfriendly Trump supporters. On the other hand, Muslim students in an eighth-grade civics class at a private, mostly Muslim school in Reston said they were well received by voters of all stripes when they conducted an informal exit poll at one elementary school.

“I didn’t expect to see so much openness in people,” said Yusra Sadiq, 14, after standing outside the polling station for several hours with a clipboard of questions in her hand.

“We asked people what they were looking for in a candidate, and a lot talked about wanting one that was honest,” she said. “One man told me that people who complain but don’t vote lose the right to complain. I thought about that for a long time.”

Among Asian activists and election watchers, the anecdotal consensus was that Clinton was the most popular candidate among voters in their community, especially women. One volunteer in Tysons Corner, who drove a group of Korean American and Chinese American retirees to the polls, said they were all excited to vote for a woman.

Ting-Yi Oei, a retired educator from Fairfax who chairs the Coalition of Asian Pacific Americans of Virginia, said many voters from that group were “concerned about anti-immigrant and racist sentiment” in the election, but also intrigued by the wide variety of backgrounds and personalities in the race.

“You had a Jewish candidate and a woman candidate and others with extreme views. It makes things more engaging,” Oei said.

One especially energetic volunteer for Clinton was Monica Lee, 23, a second-generation Hmong American from Minnesota who recently moved to Virginia. She said she hosted phone banks in her apartment and helped organize a rally for Clinton at the Eden Center, a Vietnamese cultural and commercial hub in Falls Church, which featured a traditional dragon dance.

Lee said her parents and older siblings had long been active in politics and civic life. With college just behind her, she has come east to join the staff of a nonprofit Asian American advocacy group. “This is my time, and this is my calling,” she said.

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