Asian Americans Fight Voting Restrictions Before Midterm Elections: Interview with John C. Yang, President and Executive Director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian American Justice Center

Interview by Eddie Wong. Posted Oct. 28, 2022.

Eddie Wong: Please tell us about the Arizona case where Advancing Justice – AAJC and AZ Asian Americans Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders for Equity Coalition were able to win an injunction against voter purges.

John C. Yang, President and Executive Director, Advancing Justice-AAJC.

John C. Yang: What was most damaging about HB 2243 was that it required documentary proof of citizenship. Voters could effectively be purged quite quickly and without due process especially when we’re talking about proof of citizenship. Nearly 60% of the Asian American community are immigrants and 90% of our community are children of immigrants. Anytime you invoke citizenship questions it tends to have a disparate impact on our community. We sought a temporary injunction to make it clear that this law would not be implemented, and voters would not be purged or prevented from voting for the midterm election. This law was just passed and it’s still going through the court system as to its constitutionality. We believe that it’s unconstitutional. So as an important first step, we wanted to make sure it was not used against the community for these upcoming elections. 

Eddie Wong: Have there been similar laws passed in other states? 

John C. Yang: There have been attempts in the past to require different types of proof of citizenship or different types of identification. When this was presented many years ago in Arizona, they lost. We see this as a rerun of a failed strategy. And we’ve seen this in other states as well.

Eddie Wong: Was this law intended to target Asians, or was it more broadly against anyone who’s an immigrant? 

John C. Yang: Because both the Asian American community and the Latino American community are highly immigrant communities, we know that this law will overwhelmingly impact them.  Anytime there is a requirement of citizenship, there are arbitrary and subjective standards as to when or how someone’s citizenship can be investigated. We know that there will be an impact on our community. One thing to remember is that as thing currently stand, that this is a standard that a county recorder, among other things, can implement on her or his own. We have seen countless examples in the past where just based on names alone, Asian Americans or Latino Americans citizenship, have been questioned. And that is why it’s important for us to litigate these types of cases. 

Hyunja Norman, center, hands out pro-voting signs at the Korean Community Center in Houston on Oct. 11, 2022. Credit: Annie Mulligan for The Texas Tribune.

Eddie Wong: Has Asian Americans Advancing Justice – AAJC had to intervene in similar cases during this election cycle? 

John C. Yang:  Along with Advancing Justice independent affiliates in Atlanta and San Francisco, we have been in discussions about their laws. In some places, we’ve been able to reach settlements before we had to file lawsuits. 

Eddie Wong: Let’s pull back the camera to a larger picture. There’s been a long history of advocacy for voting rights for non-citizens and language access rights for ballots. Could you give us a quick overview of what you feel are the major issues that are still before us as a community?

John C. Yang: When it comes to federal law, there are two laws in particular that we should always remember. One is section 208 of the Voting Rights Act, and the other is section 203 of the Voting Rights Act. Under Section 208 we’re allowed an assister of our choice at the polls. What that means for our Asian American community is if you are not English proficient or if you want to have a translator in the polling booth with you, you’re allowed to do that as long as the individual is not your employer or union representative. That is a federal right that you have. Unfortunately, many in our community are unaware of that right and so making sure people are aware of that right is important.

The second is Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act, which states that if a jurisdiction reaches a certain percentage of non-English speaking individuals who are citizens that can vote, then that jurisdiction is required to have a multilingual ballot. If you have 5% of the population or 10,000 individuals who speak a particular language and don’t speak English very well, then you are required under federal law to have election materials, including the ballot and voter registration application translated in that language. Currently under federal law, I believe there’s 30 jurisdictions that have an Asian language appear on the ballot alongside the English language. There are several jurisdictions that are pretty close to hitting the 5% or 10,000 level. In those jurisdictions, oftentimes if you work with the government officials there, they’re willing to translate if they can find the funds to do that. A focus of our work is to make sure that we have the language access. 

Graphic from Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk.

Eddie Wong: There has been a rise in Asian American voter registration and also turnout. What are some of the other factors that have led to this this surge of participation? 

John C. Yang: I think there’s probably two or three we can name. One is simply awareness. Our community is very fast growing. Many of us are new citizens, and many of us come from countries that don’t have a strong history of democracy. It’s our job to make sure our new citizens understand the importance of voting, the power of voting. But it’s also the job of the elected officials and election administration officials to make our rights known to our community. Too often, politicians don’t reach out to our community. They don’t try to engage us in town halls.

Certainly, over the last three years, because of anti-Asian hate, we also see a growing voice in our Asian American community, a demand for racial justice, and inclusion of Asian American history in our K through 12 curriculum. So that rising voice shows the willingness to exercise our political power. The last thing to remember is that our community is a very new community. If you go back to the 1970 census, we were only about half a percent of the American population. Now we’re 7% of the population and we’re the fastest growing community in the United States. We are now recognizing the rights that we have, the political power that we have, and we’re exercising that at the ballot box. 

Eddie Wong:  One of the big concerns in the upcoming election is intimidation at the polls. Are you engaged in any kind of election protection work?

John C. Yang: We, along with APIA Vote, run a voter information hotline. It’s 888 API Vote. Anyone who has a question or concerns about their ability to exercise the right to vote, they can call that number. And we’re plugged into a network of lawyers under the auspices of the Lawyers Committee for Civil and Human Rights that can file lawsuits if we see that there is a credible allegation of potential suppression on election night. They have a team of lawyers on standby that can go in and file injunctions in the appropriate jurisdictions.

Several of our independent affiliates as well as the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund run poll monitoring operations where they do exit polls, among other things, and try to understand what is happening with our Asian American community. So that also gives us more data on how Asian Americans are feeling at the polls, what the top issues are, and how they want to see these issues addressed. 

Photo from NY ACLU website.

Eddie Wong: My last question is more of a personal question. How are you feeling at this time being such a close election?

John C. Yang: The main thing that I want people to know is how important elections are. We’ve seen so many close elections in these last few years, so don’t think that your vote doesn’t count. Our Asian American community certainly has been the margin of victory in many states. I don’t want people to get apathetic about their right to vote. You have the right to vote. If you need help voting, contact one of these organizations I’ve talked about, including us and our hotline, to make sure you understand how to vote. But please do it. That’s probably my biggest concern is that people hear negative news, and they choose not to engage. 

Eddie Wong: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me.

John C. Yang: You’re welcome. It’s been a pleasure.

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Interviewer Bio:  Eddie Wong is the editor/publisher of East Wind ezine. He is a longtime activist in the Asian American cultural and political fields. He wishes to thank Genny Hom for her assistance in arranging the interview with John C. Yang.

Visit Advancing Justice – AAJC .

For more  information about AZ Asian Americans Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders for Equity, read Organizing in a Battleground State – Interview with Jennifer Chau – AZ AANHPI for Equity

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