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Politicians turn to mobilizing Asian American voters as Maryland primaries approach

Maryland Del. Harry Bhandari (D-Baltimore County) speaks at a reelection event in Nottingham on Aug. 1. (Courtesy of Del. Harry Bhandari)

As the 2022 Maryland primaries approach, politicians, activists and party officials are increasingly turning to the state’s Asian American population as key to future elections.

This voter bloc — the fastest-growing in the nation — saw record turnouts across the country and in the state in recent elections. Asian voters helped President Biden win Georgia in November, and some analysts attributed the Democratic success in Georgia’s tight Senate runoff election in January to high turnout among communities of color, including the Asian American and Pacific Islander community.

Though Maryland has not held as competitive elections in recent history, politicians, activists and party officials believe the growing community will play an outsize role in shaping future races. Asian voters in the state turned out to vote in the 2018 midterm and 2020 presidential elections at record rates.

Voter registration among eligible Asian American voters increased by 6.7 percentage points between the 2014 and 2018 midterm elections, compared with a decline of about four points for Hispanic and Black voters, and an increase of 2.3 points for White voters, according to census data.

And the share of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders who turned out at the polls increased by 22 percentage points between the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, compared with a six-point increase for Black and White voters, and a 12-point increase for Hispanic voters.

Asian Americans have grown in the state in the past 10 years, from 5.6 percent of the population in 2010 to 7 percent in the 2020 census. Many Asian immigrants who settled in Maryland in the past two decades have acquired citizenship, which also has increased the size of the Asian electorate, said Tom Bonier, the CEO of TargetSmart, a Democratic political data and data services firm.

The state legislature now has at least 11 Asian American members, and several elected officials said they’ve seen more Asian candidates running in recent years.

“With every candidate running and every win, it was a tremendous morale booster for people who have never voted before because they saw the hope of us getting organized and seeing what we could do by being a part of the system,” said Del. Lily Qi (D-Montgomery). “As long as we vote in elections that matter — which, in Maryland, are the primaries — then people will continue to pay attention to our community.”

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Qi added that older immigrants have established themselves and are more capable of participating as they have learned more about how the government works, picked up English and acquired more wealth to contribute to campaigns.

The younger generation has also been more involved in politics and has played an instrumental role in persuading older generations to participate, Qi said.

Anticipating these demographic and political trends, experts believe the Asian American-Pacific Islander community could change the tide for important seats, see more representation in candidates running and have their values reflected in statewide legislation.

Bonier said he is optimistic that turnout will continue to grow even without the influence of President Donald Trump, whose tenure helped lead to the nation’s highest turnout rates in a presidential election and higher-than-average midterm election rates.

“One thing that we know based on individual history is that voting is habit forming. Someone voting in the past would influence voting again,” he said.

Throughout the pandemic, Trump referred to the virus as the “kung flu,” a derogatory term that raised alarm in the AAPI community. Even without Trump’s rhetoric stoking a discussion of American identity among the Asian American community, the rise in hate crimes and continuing effects of the coronavirus pandemic may influence turnout, as the community has been “awakened,” state Sen. Susan C. Lee (D-Montgomery) said.

Del. Harry Bhandari (D-Baltimore County), the vice chair of the state general assembly’s AAPI caucus and a PhD candidate studying Asian American political participation, said the race for governor, a seat held by Republican Larry Hogan, could be influenced by a surge in AAPI turnout.

“For example, if there’s a four-way race, every vote counts,” Bhandari said about the growing number of close local and state elections.

Varun Nikore, president of AAPI Victory Fund, a super PAC focused on mobilizing Asian American voters, said he believes issues such as education and addressing hate crimes may be a focus in future legislation as the community continues to participate on the state and local level.

Qi said she believes that counties with a higher proportion of Asian American residents, such as Montgomery, Howard, Frederick and Baltimore counties, may see more competitive races and more Asian candidates running for office in upcoming elections.

According to the Pew Research Center, more Asian voters in Maryland tend to identify as Democrats, but the Republican Party looks to this group for new potential voters, party officials said.

Dirk Haire, chairman of the state GOP, said the party aims to increase mobilization efforts and attract candidates to run.

“Howard County and Montgomery County strongly lean Democrat, but we believe that building a stronger bench team of Asian American candidates will pay dividends not just statewide but in Howard County and Montgomery County in particular,” Haire said.

The state Democratic Party is focused on taking back the governor’s office, said Maryland Democratic Party Chair Yvette Lewis. Experts and elected officials noted that Hogan’s wife, Yumi Hogan, who is believed to be the first Korean American first lady of a U.S. state, helped him gain favor among the Asian community.

“Democrats know that the AAPI community is a cornerstone of our party and in order to maintain our success with AAPI voters, we need to speak to them earlier and year-round,” Lewis said in a written statement.

For newly politically involved residents who have gotten a taste of having a seat at the table, continuing to mobilize others is the best way to keep the attention from campaigns and elected officials.

Paul Li of Rockville first got involved in 2018 to help Qi win office, the same year he first registered to vote. Since then, the 54-year-old has engaged in several canvassing events, became a precinct leader for his local Democratic caucus and began voting in local elections.

“Like many other Chinese immigrants, we are politically aware and informed, but we aren’t politically engaged. Many of us are very cynical about politics,” Li said. “But now, we want to change the system. … Convincing people to vote is not that difficult anymore. Almost everyone understands that collectively we need to vote.”

Megan Cha, a senior at Sherwood High School in Silver Spring, said her family has generally been reluctant to participate in elections outside of presidential elections.

“I know a lot of people lost faith in the government after being ignored for so many years,” said Cha, who is Korean.

Cha said her family distrusted the government because of their experiences in their home country. But she was motivated to get into politics. Cha got involved in an internship led by Lee that involved conducting voter research and canvassing in her community.

“A lot of Asian American voters around me aren’t that into politics because we aren’t as exposed to it. But at least we’re putting it out there that this is an option and you can be heard,” Cha said.

State Sen. Clarence K. Lam (D-Howard) said he anticipates seeing more Asian candidates seeking office and a steady growth of participation among the community as elections have become more competitive.

“I think this is the tip of the iceberg. What this last election cycle did was pour fuel over the fire to get the Asian American community to get involved,” Lam said. “It’s a reflection of the fact that with a larger population and a stronger voice, we’re finally starting to reflect that diversity in our legislative body.”