Canvassing Door-to-Door in Flushing to Get Out the Asian Vote

On Oct. 24, Hannah Yoon, a volunteer canvasser and administrative associate at the Minkwon Center for Community Action, spoke with a potential voter in Flushing, Queens (Photo by Joeun Lee for Voices of NY)

On Oct. 24, Hannah Yoon, a volunteer canvasser and administrative associate at the MinKwon Center for Community Action, spoke with a potential voter in Flushing, Queens (Photo by Joeun Lee for Voices of NY)

Knock, knock.

“Is Mr. Park home? We’re here to remind voters to go out and vote on this coming election, Nov. 8. Will you vote?”

Park, a 78-year-old Korean American, came to the door, seemingly bewildered by the stranger. He said, in Korean, that he would like to vote but didn’t know where to go to vote. The stranger was kind enough to hand him Korean-translated information about poll sites.

On a chilly Monday evening in Flushing, Queens, Hannah Yoon, a volunteer canvasser and administrative associate at the MinKwon Center for Community Action, knocked on nearly 40 Asian-American voters’ doors, mostly Koreans and Chinese. Fewer than a dozen opened their doors, and despite their desire to participate in the civic decision-making process, nearly half of them were not aware of their poll sites.

“When I canvass or phone-bank, there are always people with whom I interact who do not know how or where to vote,” said Yoon. “By sharing with our community members the information that they need to go to the polls, they are empowered and are much more willing to cast their votes in an election.”

On Oct. 24, just two weeks ahead of the November election, the MinKwon Center, a community-based organization which advocates for immigrant rights and organizes the Asian community with a particular focus on Korean immigrants, kicked off the campaign, “Get Out The Vote,” or GOTV, in Flushing.

Through 12 days of the canvassing and phone-banking campaign, which lasts until the day before the election on Nov. 8, the center is aiming to reach out to nearly 7,000 Asian-American voters in the area to remind them to vote. Volunteers distributed voter guide materials translated into four Asian languages (Chinese, Korean, Bengali, and Nepali) with information about where to vote, what to bring, and how to seek help in their preferred languages at the polls.

This grassroots campaign is a collaborative effort driven by a coalition, APA VOICE (Asian Pacific Americans Voting and Organizing to Increase Civic Engagement), consisting of 18 nonprofit, non-partisan Asian-American organizations in New York. The objective is to increase Asian-American voter turnout and educate potential voters about key issues that will be affected by election results in their community. There have been three campaigns so far this year for the primaries, and this, for the general election, is the fourth.

On Oct. 24, volunteers at the Minkwon Center for Community Action organize voter guide materials translated into four Asian languages. (Photo by Joeun Lee for Voices of NY)

On Oct. 24, volunteers at the MinKwon Center for Community Action organize voter guide materials translated into four Asian languages. (Photo by Joeun Lee for Voices of NY)

In Flushing, where Yoon was canvassing, more than 70 percent of the population is Asian, according to the latest data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. Local organizations such as Korean Community Services, or KCS, and Queens YWCA, are also participating in the APA VOICE campaign, targeting primarily Korean and Chinese immigrant voters. The Korean American Civic Empowerment has also issued a Korean-translated voter guide in New York and New Jersey.

The MinKwon Center aims to reach out to older Asian-American immigrant voters whose English language skills are often barriers to voting. According to the Census data, 63 percent of adults 18 years or older in Flushing speak languages other than English at home.

“I’ve had several interactions with registered voters who did not want to vote because they didn’t want to try and read English ballots,” said Yoon. “They didn’t know that in New York City, there are interpreters in a few different languages at each polling site. We try to always carry information sheets that are translated into a variety of languages so that at least they will have information in their language.”

Getting millennials to turn out to vote is another challenge. Volunteers at the center often find that many young registered voters’ home addresses don’t match where they are actually living. In addition, many young Asian voters tend to be indifferent to the political landscape.

“I do see that many of my Asian-American millennial peers prefer to be ambivalent to politics,” said Yoon. “They are more interested in making sure their basic needs and the needs of their families are met. I think our parents, the first immigrant generation, were so concerned about the basic needs that there was a lack of education about politics at home.”

Because of these problems, community organizations often take a different approach to reaching out to young voters: voter registration campaigns through social media or entertainment events. Two weeks ago, separately from the APA VOICE campaign, KCS joined in a national campaign, “#IamAsianAmerican” through Twitter and Facebook, partnering with food trucks and restaurants to encourage millennial Asian Americans to vote by handing out voter registration forms.

“Younger voters are historically one of the hardest groups to turn out,” said Kevin Luong, organizer for civic and youth engagement at the MinKwon Center. He said that the center tries to turn out younger voters through their own community groups like the Youth Empowerment Program, which provides young voters with campaign activity opportunities, like voter registration, canvassing, and phone-banking.

Not only is this grassroots campaign important for this presidential election, but it’s also crucial for the upcoming NYC mayoral election next year because it will have a more direct impact on the community. Volunteers are reminding voters that, in 2017, they will decide on all 51 City Council members, the mayor, and other city elected officials.

“In New York, it’s so hard for immigrants to vote,” Yoon said of a closed primary system where only voters who registered for a party, which is holding primaries, are allowed to vote. “That’s why we also want to educate our community members who are mostly immigrants and not familiar with the voting system.”

At 8:30 p.m., about two hours after canvassing started, volunteers gathered back at the center’s office. They shared their completed lists of voters and compared how many positive responses they received with one another. On average, about one out of five responded. The volunteers said the Asian-American population tends to be transient and move often, which appears to be one of the reasons that a lot of addresses on the list had changed and residents couldn’t be reached. It also may be because Asian Americans are sometimes more hesitant to interact with a stranger and vote on political issues that seem far removed from their lives.

Whatever the reason, the volunteers didn’t seem discouraged. “There is more chance for voters to go to the polls if they are encountered by a door-knocking than phone-banking,” said Yoon. She said that volunteers believe providing even a few more voters with informative materials would make a positive impact on other voters like their friends and family through word of mouth. Even with the low response rate, she tries to remain positive. “I think we made a difference,” Yoon added.

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