There are more than 11 million Asian Americans who are eligible to vote (almost 5% of the nation’s eligible voters), but it’s taken hard work to get to this point. It wasn’t until the 1952 Immigration Act that most Asian Americans were naturalized or allowed to become citizens, vote, and exercise their full rights as Americans. 

Despite some progress, the Asian American community still faces barriers to voting. I spoke to Terry Ao Minnis, senior director of census and voting programs at Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC (Advancing Justice | AAJC), to learn more about how the organization is ensuring Asian American voices are heard and what donors should know about helping the organization strengthen democracy.

What does Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC do?

Advancing Justice | AAJC advances the civil and human rights of Asian Americans, and works to build and promote a fair and equitable society for all. We work closely with our four Advancing Justice affiliates, and with our network of over 160 local partners nationwide. In addition to voting rights, we also work on the census, immigration and immigrant rights, telecommunications and technology, hate crimes and hate incidents, and affirmative action. We engage in policy advocacy, litigation, education, and community engagement for all Asian Americans, but especially the most vulnerable and marginalized members of our community.

Asian Americans are the fastest growing community in the U.S. and we’re becoming an increasing force in elections. However, there is a 15% to 20% gap between Asian American and white voters in voter participation. Some of this is due to language barriers. Sixty percent of Asian Americans are foreign-born and almost half of Asian American adults are limited English proficient. Combine this with the fact that many of our community members are not naturalized citizens or come from countries where civic engagement is not encouraged, and there is a lot to figure out. 

How does Advancing Justice | AAJC help?

We educate and support Asian American voters to overcome barriers to voting by understanding and protecting their rights, especially under Section 203 and Section 208 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA). Section 203 of the VRA is a language voting assistance provision that requires multilingual elections for Latinos, Asian Americans, American Indians and Alaska Natives in certain jurisdictions that meet population and literacy requirements as determined by the Census Bureau. Since its implementation, Section 203 has increased voter registration and turnout for Asian Americans. As we document in our report, “Section 203 also led to an increase in political representation by “candidates of choice” as a direct result of the increased civic engagement of these groups.” Section 208 was added to the Voting Rights Act in 1982 and “provides for voters who need assistance to vote by reason of blindness, disability, or inability to read or write. Any such voter may be given assistance by a person of the voter’s choice, other than the voter’s employer or agent of the voter’s union.” 

To ensure that our community members know their rights, we create fact sheets on Section 203 and Section 208 that are translated into several languages, including Arabic, Bengali, Burmese, Chinese, English, Gujarati, Hindi, Karen, Khmer, Korean, Nepali, Punjabi, Urdu, Vietnamese, Tagalog, Thai, and Spanish. We also run an Asian language voter hotline year-round with APIA Vote, offering assistance in Cantonese, Mandarin, Korean, Vietnamese, Tagalog, Bengali, Urdu, Hindi, and English. Callers can leave a message and we’ll get back to them within 24-48 hours. In the weeks leading up to the November election, we will have real-time responders. No question is too big or small. If folks need help finding their polling place or are having problems registering to vote, they can call us on the hotline. 

How has COVID-19 impacted your work?

There are two main things we are keeping an eye on and helping people understand and navigate. One is the intersection of COVID-19 and language assistance and language access.  As more places expand their vote-by-mail programs, we need to ensure that it’s being done in a way that works for voters that have difficulty with the English language. If your jurisdiction is covered by Section 203, any vote-by-mail program has to comply with Section 203 also. 

While voting at home will be a boon for some members of our community because it will give folks more time and flexibility to review their ballot, we are adamant about the need for safe in-person voting options for also. Voters need to be able to participate in this election in the way that makes the most sense for them. 

We are also paying close attention to the significant increase in anti-Asian rhetoric and violence during COVID-19. We have to expect that it might spill over into the election. We encourage members of our community to use our tool,, to report hate crimes, harassment, and discrimination so that we can collect data on these hate incidents against Asian Americans to monitor and push back against hate. 

Is there anything else you want to share?

In addition to supporting our community members in this election, we’re collecting data, and working with partner organizations to make the arguments necessary to restore specific pieces of the Voting Rights Act.  

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