top of page
  • JCI Blog

Turning out the Votes Means Speaking the Language

By Van Tamom

Stop me if you’ve heard it before – “Engaging the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community is an important facet of our strategy to reach voters,” or something like that. But maybe, just maybe we are starting to see concrete action taken to REALLY engage AAPI voters, in a culturally thoughtful and appropriate way.

First, some statistics. According to APIA Vote, a nonprofit empowering AAPI communities, nearly 60% of Asian American voters turned out in 2020. Yet more than half had not heard from either the Democratic Party (52%) or Republican Party (60%). If the AAPI vote was truly valued, then the rate of contact should certainly be more than half. But simply hearing from one party or the other is not enough, it is important that the message they hear is something that can resonate with the community. Perhaps the most important way to engage various AAPI communities is through language. More than 40% of registered Asian American voters who speak another language at home would utilize in-language voting assistance. Here are two examples of how engaging diverse communities is truly making the AAPI community a vote to be cultivated, not paid lip service to.

In the 2022 mid-terms, the city of Philadelphia was required, under the Voting Rights Act to provide voter info in Chinese, as well as interpreters and language accommodations. Even with these accommodations, voters with limited English proficiency would not have necessarily voted. Non-partisan organizations like Asian Americans United (AAU) and Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Association Coalition (SEAMAAC) – whose work I saw first-hand in the South Philadelphia Cambodian community when I was with the Obama campaign in 2008, were vital to the effort to bring AAPIs to the polls, regardless of their political affiliation. These organizations, and others registered AAPI voters, educated them on the process and procedures, and helped to mobilize these same voters with great success. Asian Pacific Islander Political Alliance (API PA) talked to over 60,000 AAPI voters in more than a dozen languages from both phone and door conversations and sent over 300,000 pieces of mail in various languages and produced online ads. And what were the results? At least in Pennsylvania, it can be said that the AAPI vote was the margin of victory for both John Fetterman and Josh Shapiro, with exit polling showing nearly 75% of AAPIs voted for both candidates.

In Georgia, The Warnock campaign is pushed hard for the AAPI vote, releasing ads in Mandarin, Korean, and Vietnamese. The Peach State as it’s known has seen a surge in AAPI voters, with over 60,000 new voters between 2016 and 2020. AAPIs now make up 4.7% of the states’ electorate and it’s an open question if these votes will, again have provided the margin of victory for Sen. Warnock. In fact, in the November 8 election, 58% of AAPI voters voted Democratic according to NBC News exit polling. How important is the AAPI community in Georgia? For the first time, there is an AAPI caucus in the state house (a bi-partisan one at that), ads in various language are being widely distributed, and celebrities and AAPI leaders have descended upon the state to sway voters. One only must look at Nabilah Islam, the first South Asian in the Georgia State Senate to see the growing power of AAPIs in the state – going so far as to utilize the messaging app WhatsApp to engage Bangladeshi voters that propelled her to victory.

While the Georgia runoff did not determine control of the Senate (Pennsylvania saw to that), the state is another important test of the power of the AAPI vote, and once the numbers come out, we will see the effectiveness of the Asian American vote.

Organizations mentioned:


bottom of page