‘We feel invisible’: Why we must invest in AAPI voters

We feel invisible. We feel tokenized. We feel ignored.

That’s what Public Wise researchers heard from a small focus group of Asian American and Pacific Islanders convened as part of a larger investigation into why people choose not to vote. And it’s what I’ve heard from friends and family who feel disillusioned with our democratic processes, friends and family who for far too long have been left behind in political discourse by politicians who fail to recognize the value of the AAPI community in our society and civic life. 

As Executive Director of Public Wise, an organization committed to expanding and preserving democracy and making it a reality for disenfranchised communities, I’ve seen firsthand that AAPI communities need resources, support, and access to information in order to participate in our democracy. This year, Asian and Pacific American History Month coincided with a slew of primary elections in key states like North Carolina, Georgia, and Pennsylvania. 

In these states, democracy is on the ballot. Last week in Georgia’s primaries, the two Republican frontrunners campaigning for secretary of state were both deeply entrenched in restricting voting access and limiting democracy. Rep. Jody Hice, who voted against certifying the 2020 election, was neck-in-neck in the race with incumbent Brad Raffensperger, who gained acclaim for refusing to cave to President Trump’s demand that he “find” the votes to overturn the 2020 election results. Though Hice is allied with Trump—whose political machine is honing in on secretary of state races across the country with an eye toward rigging the 2024 presidential election—his defeat to Raffensperger was not a victory for voting rights. During the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial election, Raffensperger and the Georgia State Election Board violated federal voting-rights laws and established or reinforced unjust, unconstitutional barriers to voting, particularly for people of color. Ultimately, both of these candidates are motivated by a dangerous white supremacist ideology that have hampered progress in the U.S. since the nation’s inception. We cannot ensure a just, multiracial democracy if candidates with proven track records of malicious contempt for voting rights are allowed to assume office. We cannot prevent these candidates from assuming office if we don’t vote. But when you feel like politics has left you behind—and even leaving you vulnerable to direct physical violence—voting alone doesn’t seem like a good enough answer. 

Over the course of the pandemic, the U.S. has seen a national surge in hate crimes and violence directed toward Asian women. A year ago, a gunman shot and killed eight people, including six Asian women, in Atlanta. In January, a man fatally pushed Michelle Go onto the train tracks in New York City. In February, a man followed Christina Yuna Lee to her home in New York and killed her. On February 28, GuiYing Ma died as a result of injuries sustained in a November attack after a man struck Ma on the head with a rock. And just days before the anniversary of the Atlanta shooting, an Asian woman in Yonkers was punched more than 125 times. 

The lasting effect of these attacks is that many Asian women no longer feel comfortable living their day-to-day lives. We don’t feel safe riding the subway. We don’t feel safe walking around by ourselves. We don’t feel safe because we are not safe.

That’s why it’s more important than ever to do more than memorialize the victims of violence. Thoughts and prayers are not enough. Parachuting in post-disaster won’t prevent the next. Now is the time for urgent, concerted investment and outreach to AAPI voters. We must all follow the example of groups like Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote, and the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, which empower AAPI communities across the country to bring their power to the polls. They are advocating for the support, attention, and respect AAPI communities deserve. They are bringing people into political conversations rather than leaving them at the margins. We must invest in organizations that are building power for AAPI communities and ensure we have representation in government and elected office, in business, and at all decision making tables. Without such representation, AAPI communities will continue to be pushed aside. Without visibility, we are vulnerable to continued violent attacks. Without inclusion, we risk leaving the fate of our country in the hands of a tyrannical white supremacist minority rule. These are the same individuals who tried to overthrow the results of the election on January 6, 2021, and who will try to do so again if given the opportunity in a future attempted insurrection.

We know that we must unite across race, place, and gender identity, to prevent the proponents of white male supremacy from seizing power. We need to rally around AAPI candidates like Bee Nguyen, a Democrat who is opposing Raffensbeger for secretary of state in Georgia. Nguyen’s politics are the antidote to white supremacist ideologies pushed forward by Hice and Raffensperger. Rather than work to make voting harder, Nguyen helped overturn the “exact match” law that knocked 53,000 Georgians off the voter rolls. But in order to ensure pro-democracy candidates like Nguyen are elected into office, we must bring more AAPI voters into the fold, and build power for women and girls, especially as we continue to be targeted by hate and misogyny.

Christina Baal-Owens

Executive Director

Public Wise

Public Wise fights to secure a government that reflects the will and protects the rights of the people.