The Last Call before the Election

While the conclusion of the 2014 Pennsylvania gubernatorial race seems so imminent, the young Asian American political activists are making the last call for power.

by Yuxuan Jia and Bole Yuan

The political apathy hurts feelings.

According to Asian Americans United, an advocacy group, in every 10 phone calls they made to potential Chinese voters in their latest “Chinatown Vote” initiative, three recipients would refuse to vote; in every 10 encounters they had with potential voters on the street, two voters would say no to their faces.

“In America, if you want something, you have to earn it by yourself,” said Xu Lin of Asian Americans United.

His organization has been running an intensive campaign to encourage Chinese Philadelphians to vote since June. Till last week, the campaign volunteers had done six rounds of what they call “tabling” – volunteers setting up tables on the street for interviewing and enlisting potential voters. They were also mobilizing forces on multiple frontiers, knocking doors and making phone calls to people who otherwise hear nothing about the election.

“While in whole the voter turnout rate in Philadelphia is low, we think it is an opportunity for Asians to be heard and their impact amplified, if more of them can vote,” said Lin.

“You can’t ignore the contribution that local Chinese people have made to taxes and jobs, since many of them are running successful businesses,” said Lin. “However, in Philadelphia alone, the resource that they get from the society accounts for merely 0.07 percent of the whole. Our analysis finds that their inactiveness towards politics and election is the reason.”

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(Youth organizer Wei Chen is urging a potential Chinese voter to go to a polling station after work. Photo/Bole Yuan)

Lin believed the only way to give local Chinese people a fairer share is to do so through political involvement: if more Chinese people vote on November 4, those who will be elected are more likely to listen to them.

In his team, the volunteers were originally asked to contribute a small portion of their time into the campaign. In reality, their weekly workloads often exceeded 20 hours. Fortunately, many students who heard of the effort asked to join. The team ended up having eight adults and 30 youths, most of whom are high school students born to immigrant parents.

“It’s a good opportunity for them to get a pre-voting experience,” said Wei Chen, Asian Americans United’s youth organizer. “These young immigrants will be able to participate in elections in the future.”

Where are the Asian voters of Philadelphia?

In Philadelphia, Asians account for less than 7 percent of the population, a number that more or less puts them in limbo. It looks better than the state’s 2.7 percent, making Philadelphia a must-check place for insights into the well-being of Asians in Pennsylvania. But when it comes to who cuts the cake, 7 percent is insignificant; it is dwarf against the 37.7 percent of West Windsor, NJ, a town that elected the first and only Chinese American mayor in the Mid-Atlantic region.

To give Asians a higher ground in politics, data miners often group ethnic Asian communities together. However, this practice becomes problematic in elections, mostly because of the great linguistic and cultural diversity within the 7 percent. Election overseers find it hard to monitor each ethnic community; candidates fumble to set foot in this 7 percent, only to find it hard to establish a common ground in the discrepancies. In the end, as observers often conclude, each ethnic Asian community is left to decide their own fate.

As Metro Chinese Weekly reported on May 20, this year’s primary election day, only 38 people voted in the polling station of Chinatown, which had 1308 registered voters. It is unclear how many will show up on November 14.

“There was a senior citizen who came over during our first tabling for just looking,” Chen said. “The second time he asked what we were doing. He registered to vote in his third visit.”

Chen said some Chinese people were uncooperative with the young volunteers because they were unfamiliar with their cause. He believed more media coverage and persistent youth volunteerism will finally change it.

So far, the lack of accurate information about Chinese voters is the one of the biggest hurdles that Asian American political activists have encountered. Without knowing who the eligible Chinese American voters are, political activists are unable to pinpoint the people they want to reach. In late April, during an interview with Metro Chinese Weekly, Councilman David Oh identified that in Pennsylvania, the source of the problem has two folds: the law does not require voters to acknowledge their ethnicity, while some voters themselves do not wish to be profiled ethnically. Oh was organizing a voter registration drive then.

Asian Americans United and another advocacy group, Boat People SOS, used a labor-intensive method in their campaigns. They pulled data from the City Commissioners office and searched for people with common last names from Asia.

On October 27th, 500 people with Chinese last names picked up calls from Asian Americans United. Among them, 350 said they were interested in voting; 30 said they are voting; 40 said they might.

For the whole campaign, the volunteers initially had a goal to get 100 voter registration forms and reached 400 people through door-knocking. By last Wednesday they have collected 120 forms and knocked open 800 doors.

The result seemed promising to the young activists, as over 100 people said they would go to vote.

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