Pounding the Pavement to get out the Asian Pacific Islander vote

Linh Vu and Nancy Huang ask a Beacon Hill resident if she's registered to vote. (Photo by Kat Chow)

Despite a growing population, Washington’s Asian Pacific Islander community has a disproportionately low percentage of registered voters. This election season, community leaders are launching a big push to change that.

Nancy Huang, a senior at Garfield High School, had never canvassed before.

But there she was on a sunny afternoon in Beacon Hill, standing nervously on the front steps of a stranger’s porch. The rest of her doorbelling team — an international student from Vietnam and a labor union member — watched from the sidewalk. Huang wondered if she’d have to resort to her “not so great” Mandarin in order to ask: “Are you registered to vote?”

Huang was one of nearly 40 people who showed up last Saturday for the training kickoff of Every Vote Counts, a nonpartisan national campaign put on by the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA), which aims to register and educate Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) voters about local, state and national elections. King County Elections, Washington Bus and the Win/Win Network are also supporting the effort.

Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders make up 7.8 percent of the state’s population, or 244,659 eligible voters, according to 2010 census data. But only 51 percent are actually registered, according to Cherry Cayabyab of the Win/Win Network.

Huang’s parents, who immigrated from China 20 years ago, were never involved with voting until family friends told them to register. Now they vote regularly.

“Government only works for the people if people are engaged,” said state Rep. Bob Hasegawa, the keynote speaker at the event Saturday. “It’s interesting when [Asian American Pacific Islanders] have one of the lowest voting distributions of the state.”

Tracy Lai, APALA’s Seattle chapter president and Seattle Central Community College faculty, believes that Washington is a “key state” because of redistricting and population changes. She thinks that registering more AAPI voters can make a big difference in the upcoming elections.

The redistricting, which established the state’s first majority-minority congressional district, as well as four majority-minority legislative districts, reflects population growth that was identified by the 2010 Census.

Every Vote Counts will use doorbelling campaigns — like what 18-year-old Nancy Huang was doing — to reach out to its community members to get them to exert their potential political power. Equipped with voting materials translated in languages like Chinese, Vietnamese and Cambodian — and the vague notion that they might need to break out rusty language skills — volunteers are going door to door to register new voters, and remind people who have already registered to update their addresses if they’ve moved.

That second part is especially important because the state shifted to a mail-only voting system last fall.

Jacqueline Blackwell, voter services program manager of King County Elections, said some people may not know Washington switched to a mail-only voting system because they only vote every four years, during presidential elections

And with 1.2 million registered voters, King County is the largest county in the nation to be all vote-by-mail. That’s why community outreach is important, Blackwell said.

Diana Bui, APALA national membership and chapter coordinator, said she thinks the vote-by-mail system can be advantageous to the AAPI community — which has a large working class population — because of its convenience. There’s no need to take time off from work, there’s no need to go out of the way. But she points out that election days and polling stations have historically served as reminders to citizens to vote. She hopes that Every Vote Counts campaign can pick up that slack.

“Every Vote Counts is about voter education. It’s about the outreach,” Bui said. “We have to meet our community’s needs.”

For Huang, who spent her afternoon standing in front of a lot of doors that never even opened, the solution to registering and educating more voters is simple.

“I just wish people would answer their doors so we could get things done,” Huang said.

This post was produced in partnership with UW Election Eye and CityClub.