APIAVote Mobilizes Against Voter Suppression – Interview with Christine Chen

By Eddie Wong. Posted January 29, 2022

Introduction:  Christine Chen is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of Asian Pacific Islander American Vote (APIAVote), a proven coalition builder and resource to 78 national and  local groups working on APA voter engagement. In the following interview, Christine addresses the recent wave of legislation aimed at suppressing voter turnout by making it more difficult to vote. (Note: For a national overview on voter restriction laws, see State of (Dis)Union .)

Christine Chen is a veteran leader among the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. She has worked as national executive director of Organization for Chinese Americans (OCA)National from 2001- 2006 and served on the executive committee of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

Eddie Wong:  APIAVote has always encouraged voter registration and voter education.  How much do we need to ramp up now that voter restrictions laws are intended to discourage voter participation?  How can we increase the electorate knowing that the laws may cause some people to not vote because the process of getting an absentee ballot is too onerous?

Christine Chen: Voter suppression has long been an issue in our community, and we’ve been dealing with this for over a decade.  One of our key strategies is to empower AAPI voters by equipping them with knowledge about their right to vote, how to vote and when – and to do so continually in the face of changes to regulations, deadlines and rule changes due to the pandemic.

The reason why we’ve been able to do this so effectively is by partnering with local community-based organizations, as they are the ones who have the on-the-ground expertise and have the trust of their communities in their specific localities. It is with that insight that we arm those local groups with translated targeted materials, assistance and resources to mobilize the electorate. In fact, we place strong emphasis on language assistance as we know that in many communities, English is not the main language spoken at home, and in many places about half  speak it less than “very well” according to Census data.

For example, we learned as early as 2012 that the number one reason why AAPIs did not vote was because they said they were too busy. So what did we do to address this? We executed large scale campaigns to educate AAPI voters on how there are other options: early voting and mail-in ballots.

And that’s what we’ll continue to do today to fight against suppression tactics and policy changes. With many states passing legislation that makes it harder to vote, APIAVote will tailor the information about affected states so voters there are aware of the new challenges they must navigate in order to cast their ballot, and local partners will be provided the resources they need to go out into their communities and address these issues.

Our programs include direct voter engagement (voter registration, voter education, Get-Out-the-Vote and election protection strategies) through direct mail, phone banking, text banking, relational organizing, in-person events, and virtual events.

Additionally, APIAVote, along with Asian Americans Advancing Justice – AAJC, coordinates a national, toll-free hotline for voters requiring assistance with registering to vote, casting their ballot, or reporting an issue that they encounter at the polling place. The hotline can be reached at 1-888-API-VOTE (1-888-274-8683) and assistance is available in English, Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, Vietnamese, Tagalog, Urdu, Hindi, and Bengali.

At the end of the day, our community members’ voices are important and must be heard. Our votes are our voices. APIAVote will do everything in its power to ensure that voters have all of the critical and timely information that they need to confidently cast their ballots.

Eddie Wong: Some of the laws restrict drop off boxes and shorten the window for requesting mail in ballots. How do we educate people about getting the ballots returned on time?

Christine Chen: APIAVote’s team meticulously monitors changes in voter registration rules, laws, and regulations. In order to facilitate the voter education required to inform voters in specific communities about these changes, APIAVote primarily works with local partners in these areas. These local partners are “trusted messengers” in their communities and have developed a distinct level of trust that makes their efforts more effective. APIAVote partners with these organizations to plan and implement large-scale direct mail campaigns, phonebanking, textbanking, and door-to-door canvassing efforts.

Every year, APIAVote coordinates with these local partners to host day-long trainings with the partners’ members and supporters to equip them with the knowledge they need to engage with the work day in and day out. These trainings are part of APIAVote’s Norman Y. Mineta Leadership Institute and arms participants with the foundations of nonpartisan electoral campaigns, leadership skills needed to be a well-rounded civic leader, as well as provides participants with strategies specific to working with AAPI communities, fulfilling an unmet need in our communities.

Eddie Wong:  In some cases, the new laws prevent third-party groups from giving unsolicited absentee ballot requests to voters. Is there a way to educate people to request ballots directly?

Christine Chen: Through APIAVote’s work in coalition with our local partner organizations, we provide voters with the critical information that they need in order to request absentee ballots on their own.

Our direct mail campaign provides essential translated information – such as educating them on how to request absentee ballots –  that is sent directly to households across states with a high percentage of AAPIs. What we then found is that following those mailers, we received thousands of calls to our toll-free hotline at 1-888-API-VOTE (where we provide assistance in the caller’s preferred language) from callers who had follow-up questions pertaining to voting.

Additionally, APIAVote maintains a compendium of state-by-state information on our website (www.apiavote.org) so that voters can have their questions answered in a moment’s notice.

Voting rights rally in WDC August 26, 2021 with Kevin K. Hirano. Photo from APIA Vote

Eddie Wong: Redistricting and gerrymandering seem to go hand-in-hand giving the GOP unfair advantage to lock in safe districts.  In some states, referendum measures were placed on the ballot to create independent commissions to redraw district lines.  Do you see any potential for launching these efforts in the coming years before the 2030 redistricting?

Christine Chen: As the dust begins to settle on the congressional and state-legislative district line drawing from the 2021 redistricting cycle, all eyes are now turned towards local redistricting processes that are occurring all over the country. Many of our partners are still engaged with redistricting authorities to ensure that their communities remain whole while city council districts, school board districts, utility districts, and other forms of local district boundaries are decided.

In the meantime, APIAVote will work with partners across the country to implement redistricting reform efforts that make the process more fair and equitable as we approach the 2030 Census and the 2031 redistricting cycle. Such efforts could include pushing for independent redistricting commissions that are not guided by political forces and, instead, are focused on keeping communities whole. This work has always been a part of our DNA at APIAVote. In 2010 and 2020 we spent enormous time and resources to getting out the count for the census. In 2020 alone, we provided over 50 regional trainings to prepare community leaders and organizations, implemented a large-scale media advertising campaign targeting local ethnic press and established a multi-language hotline to provide further assistance to people.

Voting rights rally in WDC on Aug. 26, 2021 with Raymond Partolan. Photo from APIA Facebook page.

Eddie Wong: APIAVote is now part of When We All Vote.  What programs will you carry out under that rubric?  Will WWAV provide more funds and resources for APA voter reg drives?

Christine Chen: Joining When We All Vote is one part of our greater overall voter engagement strategy, and the programs we are implementing for this campaign are actually ones we have implemented and refined for years, as well as joining with other coalitions to amplify our message. On that note, APIAVote is proud to stand in solidarity with Former First Lady Michelle Obama, When We All Vote, and other partners to reconfirm our commitment to protecting, preserving, and expanding the right to vote for the communities we serve. With When We All Vote, we are part of a national effort to:

  • Recruit and train at least 100,000 volunteers throughout 2022 to register and turn out voters in their communities.

  • Register more than a million new voters across the country.

  • Organize at least 100,000 Americans to contact their Senators, calling on them to do everything they can to pass the Freedom to Vote Act and John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.

  • Recruit thousands of lawyers to protect voters in the states where the freedom to vote is threatened.

  • Commit to educate voters on how to vote safely in their state.

In usual fashion, APIAVote intends to be a great national partner in this effort, working with our local and state-anchored partners to plan and implement programs that grow our volunteer base, increase the number of APA voters that comprise our electorate, encourage people to make contact with their federal elected officials to demand federal voting reform, recruit lawyers to help us staff our 1-888-API-VOTE hotline, and educate voters about the ins and outs of registering to vote, casting a ballot, and ensuring their vote is counted. APIAVote is actively recruiting volunteers to join us in these efforts. We will provide training and resources in order to be successful. For questions, please contact Raymond Partolan, our National Field Director, at rpartolan@apiavote.org.

APIAVote is proud to work with the When We All Vote network and looks forward to continued collaboration, which may include additional resources being directed to our local partners to carry out their voter registration drives and other tactics.

Working with When We All Vote will provide an outlet and a powerful coalition of voices to magnify the visibility and importance of the voting opportunities that are coming up.

Note:  Click APIAVote for more information on their programs and national and local partners. Donations to support APIAVote can also be made via the website.

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Interviewer bio: Eddie Wong is the editor and publisher of East Wind ezine. He is a longtime activist in the Asian American cultural and political movement.

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