While the race to Capitol Hill is heating up between Assemblywoman Grace Meng (D-Flushing) and Councilman Dan Halloran (R-Whitestone), efforts by nonprofits to mobilize the district’s Asian population may tip the scales in Meng’s favor.
Two organizations — the Alliance of South Asian American Labor and the MinKwon Center for Community Action — have been trying to increase voter turnout within certain immigrant groups.
The efforts run parallel to the Meng campaign’s own efforts to reach current non-voters, with posters in South Asian dialects, multilingual mailings and publicity events in areas with high foreign-born populations.
“It’s an important election year,” said Sabrina Fong of Flushing’s MinKwon Center for Community Action. She points to the recent redistricting, the national election and the 435 seats in Congress — up for election. “But the Asian-American voting population is disproportionately low.”
Redistricting based on the 2010 U.S. Census has raised the Asian population in the redrawn 6th Congressional District from 13 percent to 38 percent. Getting them to the polls, though, is a different matter.
Less than half of the United States’ Asian population turned out to vote in the 2008 presidential election. By comparison, overall voter turnout was 64 percent.
Often, the language barrier poses a problem when it comes to receiving information, finding out how and when to register, and whom to vote for. Not knowing the effect of one’s immigration status is often named as a common issue; the myriad of differences between the U.S. political format and that of one’s home country, another.
“If you look at the history of first-generation immigrants in America, they generally don’t vote,” says Ali Najmi of ASAAL
Since 2004, the MinKwon Center has succeeded in registering 55,000 voters. Their most recent campaign, in coalition with eight nonprofits and a shared goal — “Vote 2012: One Voice, One Vote” — aims to register 25,000 more.
The center’s volunteers can be found reaching out to first-generation immigrants at naturalization ceremonies and visiting thousands of foreign-born households with the aim of raising voting awareness. It also operates a voter hotline, runs a youth program, pay visits to Korean churches and are on hand at polls to ensure there is no ethnic discrimination.
“People can ask immigrants for IDs, stuff like that,” Fong said. “We do poll monitoring to make sure there are no problems.”
Like the MinKwon Center, ASAAL knocks on doors and cold-calls to reach unregistered voters.
Before the primary, the nonprofit organization went door-to-door every weekend in areas with large immigrant populations, and arranged multiple awareness events for both the media and immigrant groups. For seven weeks straight, the organization had up to 15 volunteers out canvassing at any one time.
Najmi said ASAAL’S efforts mobilized 227 votes for Meng in one key area — opponent and Assemblyman Rory Lancman’s (D-Fresh Meadows) district. Meng ultimately won the primary with 53 percent of the total vote, beating Lancman by 220 votes in his own territory.
Meng’s own campaign — controversially labeled “ethnocentric” by her opponent — maintains that its aim is to reach out to all Queens citizens, regardless of demographics.
When asked about the jump in registered Asian voters, Meng’s campaign manager Aaron Hecht said, “The main things we’ve been talking about are job creation and the economy, and that’s appealing to new immigrant groups.
“I think any time new voters are registered and you have the opportunity to make your case about why they should vote for you, that’s very beneficial.”
The historic nature of Meng’s campaign may help. If elected on Nov. 6, Meng will be New York City’s first Asian-American woman in Congress.
“Obviously the Asian voters we talk to are very excited about that,” Hecht said.
These newly registered voters may also take note of the heated racial tensions between Meng and Halloran. After receiving allegations of “ethnocentricism” in August, Meng’s campaign fired back at Halloran, accusing him of rooting his campaign in “bigotry, fear and lies.”
“The xenophobic undertones and outright racism found in Mr. Halloran’s words is appalling and offensive,” said Austin Finan, Meng’s campaign spokesman, at the time.
Meng’s team also accused Halloran of replicating the anti-Asian sentiment he allegedly utilized in his 2009 City Council race.
ASAAL’s Najmi agrees that if the Asian voting population changes, so does the outcome of the election: “There are so many in the area that even when they’re underperforming [vote-wise], they’re still politically relevant.”