At 8:57pm on the eve of the presidential primary, I dialed my last number after hours of phonebanking. On the other end was a man who I could hear was thinking, translating, and taking his time to make sure he was able to communicate with me in English. His accent was not too different from how my own parents speak, a cadence that hinted he was Vietnamese. So I took the liberty to go off script, mustering up and dusting off what Vietnamese language I still had in me since my grandparents passed away a few years ago. I asked, "Are you Vietnamese?". After he affirmed that he was from Vietnam, I proceed to speak, saying in my best broken Vietnamese, "I am also Vietnamese, but my Vietnamese language is very poor. I'm calling you because we are voting for President tomorrow, for the Republicans and Democrats." Yes - not entirely accurate - but the best I could do at my third grade equivalency level.
He immediately rambled off in Vietnamese, a sense of joy in his voice that he was able to communicate with someone in his first language. He shared with me that he was 85 years old, reliant on his kids who would visit him a few times a week at the nursing home to be his his ride; Tuesday was not a visiting day. He also expressed that he had no idea any voting was happening, that he was certain that voting happened at the end of the year. As I proceeded to explain to him in the best of my abilities how the primaries work, and how absentee voting works, I couldn't help but think of how important this conversation was, no matter how bad my Vietnamese was. But it was a moment to engage an eligible voter in a conversation about his right to vote that he might not have otherwise had.
In a national 2012 Post-Election Survey of Asian American and Pacific Islanders, only 31% of Asian American voters said that they had received any of communications about elections, compared to 43% of white voters, 39% of black voters, and 36% of Latino voters. The percentage is even less among Pacific Islander voters, of which only 26% had received any communication. The not so dirty little secret is that parties and candidates don't speak to Asian Americans because we don't tend to turnout. It's true. When aggregated, we don't have a really good history of voting as a community. Candidates who do want to know how to communicate with our community quickly realize the challenge of translating, finding bilingual volunteers, and so much more, that the resources in terms of time and dollars aren't always worth spending if it's more efficient to turnout English speaking, high likelihood voters. But how can we vote if no one talks to us? How can we vote if we don't have the information necessary to vote? Like the elder I spoke to on the phone, he didn't even know there was a primary election and didn't know about the absentee ballot option.
What this phone bank conversation highlighted for me was that this work to turn out voters isn't about getting someone to cast a single vote on election day. No, this work is so much more than that. It's about speaking to a community that doesn't get spoken to because we don't turn out in numbers that parties or candidates think are worthy of their time. It's about uplifting the barriers and challenges that our community members face in turning out to vote. This work is about providing solutions for our community so that they can fully participate in our democracy and I'm proud that every little action we take as APIAVote-Michigan works to be that solution.