Asian American voting grows in Georgia, and with it, political power

Myeong Hwa Jang reacts as she receives her certificate from Jessica Stewart, left, Community Outreach Program Manager, during Gwinnett 101 Citizens Academy's Spring 2021 graduation ceremony at Gwinnett Justice & Administration Center on Tuesday, June 22, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

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Myeong Hwa Jang reacts as she receives her certificate from Jessica Stewart, left, Community Outreach Program Manager, during Gwinnett 101 Citizens Academy's Spring 2021 graduation ceremony at Gwinnett Justice & Administration Center on Tuesday, June 22, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Myeong Hwa Jang moved to Georgia in March 2020 and, despite the coronavirus pandemic, immediately set out to be part of the Gwinnett County community to which she relocated.

She got to know some Buford neighbors. She explored the county parks. And not only did she vote three times between last June and January — she signed up to be a poll worker, too.

Jang, a naturalized citizen who was born in South Korea, said voting is an American responsibility. She urged neighbors to participate as well.

“Our local leaders have to know Asian Americans care for the county, the state, the country,” Jang said. “I’m not a perpetual foreigner in America; I’m part of this community.”

The number of voters who identify as Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders rose across the country, but the increase was among the most stark in Georgia, where participation rose by more than 80%. Only South Dakota, where participation more than doubled, saw a bigger increase by percentage.

Nearly a third of all such voters in Georgia live in Gwinnett. There, Asian American and Pacific Islander voters went from about 6% of the total voting electorate in 2016 to a little more than 9% in 2020, according to data from TargetSmart, a Democratic-leaning data firm.

The number of Asian American and Pacific Islander voters more than doubled, from nearly 19,000 in 2016 to almost 40,000 in 2020.

Tom Bonier, TargetSmart’s CEO, said he thinks the share increase of Asian voters was higher in Gwinnett than anywhere else in the country. He called the gain “incredibly unusual” and said the surge likely played a role in Democratic victories for the White House and subsequent Senate runoffs in January.

“You just don’t see this,” Bonier said. “It’s not the case that the AAPI population more than doubled in four years.”

Gwinnett’s Asian population increased to more than 106,000 people by 2019, the latest year for which there are numbers available, according to Census information. Asian residents now make up 12.5% of Gwinnett’s population.

“Our local leaders have to know Asian Americans care for the county, the state, the country. I'm not a perpetual foreigner in America; I'm part of this community."

- Myeong Hwa Jang, a naturalized citizen who moved to Gwinnett last year

Bonier suggested better voting access through absentee ballots and drop boxes, coupled with a sense of urgency surrounding the November election, led to the higher participation rate.

From immigration bans targeting Muslim countries to increased discrimination and violence stemming from the pejorative framing of the coronavirus pandemic, more Asian Americans were motivated to cast ballots in 2020, Emory University political scientist Andra Gillespie said.

“We need to disrupt our conception of Asian Americans as being foreigners,” Gillespie said. “Asian American voters can play a pivotal swing vote in a divided election.”

That’s a far cry from what many Asian American voters are used to — being ignored.

‘Being seen’

Jerry Vattamala, director of the democracy program at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said Asian American voters aren’t usually polled — let alone targeted by campaigns. Many residents have been disengaged from voting, he said, because no one has ever asked them to participate.

The Asian American and Pacific Islander voting population is diverse — it’s made up of immigrants from more than a dozen countries, as well as voters born in the United States. Naturalized citizens speak a range of languages, and many have limited English proficiency when it comes to technical ballot language, said Phi Nguyen, the litigation director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice — Atlanta.

For that reason, as well as the propensity of many Asian American residents not to belong to a political party, experts say it’s more difficult to target those voters than other groups.

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Myeong Hwa Jang, left, talks with Sarah Park, Community Engagement Coordinator, after Gwinnett 101 Citizens Academy's Spring 2021 graduation ceremony. Jang, who moved to Gwinnett last year, immediately set out to be part of the community, and encouraged her neighbors to vote in the 2020 election. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Myeong Hwa Jang, left, talks with Sarah Park, Community Engagement Coordinator, after Gwinnett 101 Citizens Academy's Spring 2021 graduation ceremony. Jang, who moved to Gwinnett last year,  immediately set out to be part of the community, and encouraged her neighbors to vote in the 2020 election. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Combined ShapeCaption
Myeong Hwa Jang, left, talks with Sarah Park, Community Engagement Coordinator, after Gwinnett 101 Citizens Academy's Spring 2021 graduation ceremony. Jang, who moved to Gwinnett last year, immediately set out to be part of the community, and encouraged her neighbors to vote in the 2020 election. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

In recent years, more people have been trying. DeKalb County last year became the first in Georgia to voluntarily translate materials into Korean and Gwinnett is considering translating voter materials into a number of Asian languages. Victoria Huynh, senior vice president for the Center for Pan Asian Community Services, said she’s passed out voter information at grocery stores and seen more activity on social media. Her group shares information in seven languages, and has in-house abilities to translate into 10 more.

Cam T. Ashling, chair of the Georgia Advancing Progress PAC and an operative involved in a number of Democratic campaigns, said volunteers sent more than 15,000 postcards to voters in seven languages. She set up an event that provided bubble tea to voters.

ExploreGwinnett sees record number of voters in 2020 election

And as volunteers canvassed and met residents who weren’t fluent in English, she and others engaged in video chats with potential voters to make sure they had accessible information in the language they were most comfortable with.

“We know how to reach our community,” Ashling said. “It’s complicated, but we’ve done it twice now. When you make contact with our voters, they do respond. ... What drives Asian American voters is being seen.”

Gillespie said people are more likely to vote if they’ve been asked, and are more likely to continue voting once they’ve done so the first time.

That could position Asian American voters as a voting bloc, said Varun Nikore, president of the AAPI Victory Fund — especially after the March spa shootings that killed six women of Asian descent and led to solidarity among many disparate groups.

ExploreGwinnett may make voting materials available in Korean and Vietnamese

Nikore said he expects the increase in Asian American voters to endure. Residents are “fed up, we’re not taking it anymore,” he said. “We’re demanding that systems change.”

Hate brought communities together, Huynh said. That can translate into voting, too.

“It’s all front of mind,” she said. “It’s no longer something that communities put their heads down.”

‘Our power is growing’

Rep. Sam Park, D-Lawrenceville and chair of the Gwinnett County House legislative delegation, said he hopes greater representation among elected officials makes more voters feel welcome in the process. Several Asian American lawmakers have been elected in Gwinnett in recent years, including one county commissioner and a handful of state lawmakers. Park was first elected in 2016.

Asian American voters are increasingly seeing the power they hold as American citizens, he said.

“Unequivocally, we are not a monolith, but it’s possible to find common ground,” Park said. “We are going from a marginalized community to a margin of victory.”

ExploreLawsuit alleges Georgia election law harms Asian American voters

Without Asian American and Pacific Islander voters, Rep. Carolyn Bordeaux, D-Suwanee, would not have flipped her congressional seat said Rep. Bee Nguyen, D-Atlanta. Both Nguyen and Park said they expect Asian voting power to increase — if people continue to put in the effort.

Thuy Hotle, a Republican voter in Dacula, said she’s noticed both parties reaching out more. But Hai Cao, co-founder of Vietnamese American Republicans of Georgia, said Democrats are ahead when it comes to outreach to Asian voters.

“The Republican party is trying to play catch up,” Cao said.

While younger people tend to vote more Democratic — a trend that experts say holds in Asian American communities — a number of Asian American voters say they care more about policy than party.

ExploreFrom 2020: Activists work to mobilize metro Atlanta’s Asian American voters

Jang voted for Republican David Perdue and Democrat Raphael Warnock for Senate. Jacqueline Tseng, a registered Republican who ran for county commission in Gwinnett, said she chooses candidates as individuals, not by party — though this election, she voted a straight Republican ticket.

“I don’t believe we have representation and I don’t believe we are heard enough,” Tseng said. “If we continue to be ignored, they’re going to lose a lot of voters on either side.”

Phi Nguyen, with Asian Americans Advancing Justice — Atlanta, agrees. As more Asian Americans vote, she said, it’s no longer politically savvy not to pay attention.

“We have shown our power; our power is growing,” she said. “This will have implications beyond this voting cycle. It will force people to pay attention and learn more about what Asian American voters want.”

Combined ShapeCaption
Myeong Hwa Jang, right, reacts during a group photograph with fellow graduates at the end of Gwinnett 101 Citizens Academy's Spring 2021 graduation ceremony. “Our local leaders have to know Asian Americans care for the county, the state, the country,” Jang says. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Myeong Hwa Jang, right, reacts during a group photograph with fellow graduates at the end of Gwinnett 101 Citizens Academy's Spring 2021 graduation ceremony. “Our local leaders have to know Asian Americans care for the county, the state, the country,” Jang says. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Combined ShapeCaption
Myeong Hwa Jang, right, reacts during a group photograph with fellow graduates at the end of Gwinnett 101 Citizens Academy's Spring 2021 graduation ceremony. “Our local leaders have to know Asian Americans care for the county, the state, the country,” Jang says. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC