NORCROSS, Ga. — There was a lull just before the weekend rush at Hong Kong Supermarket, which, despite its name, is one of the largest Vietnamese markets in Greater Atlanta. Minh Gia Nguyen, a 37-year-old volunteer with a clipboard of blank voter registration forms in hand, snaked through the aisles in search of eligible voters. She spotted a middle-aged man mulling a selection of gai choy, or Chinese mustard greens.
“Have you registered to vote?” she asked Thanh Ngo in Vietnamese. He hadn’t — and no one had ever pressed him like this to do so. “It’s your benefit as a citizen,” Nguyen, a volunteer with a nonpartisan civic group, said. She rattled off a list of issues that resonate with Asian American voters in polls: health care, education, immigration. “Do it for your family, for your children’s future.”
That day, after 20 years in the United States, Ngo added his name to Georgia’s voter rolls.
Finding eligible voters and persuading them to register has always been part of the strategy of winning elections. Eight years ago, unprecedented voter registration among young people and African Americans helped sweep then-Sen. Barack Obama to his historic victory.
But this year, there are new pockets of potential voters to register — and a new reason to draw them out: Donald Trump. The presumptive Republican nominee’s controversial statements about Muslims, Mexicans and immigrants have alienated legions of nonwhite Americans. The challenge for Democrats is to find those Americans and make sure they are eligible to vote. That’s exactly what they’re doing in a strong push across the country.
“It’s definitely affected me to a very real sense. It’s personal because I come from a family of immigrants,” said John Choi, a 28-year-old Korean American who grew up in Gwinnett County and has seen the Asian population balloon there in recent years. A former staffer on a gubernatorial campaign in Massachusetts, Choi is outspoken about politics among his friends — but this year has made him more so.
“When I hear language and speeches and talks about policies that are anti-immigrant, it really does make me want to vote more,” he said. “I have been voting, and I have been pretty involved in the election process. But it makes me want to tell all my friends and family to also vote, to counter all the anti-immigration rhetoric.”
Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton plans to announce a major voter-mobilization effort on Monday that will aim to add more than 3 million people to rolls by November to bolster her odds against Trump.
Aides say Clinton plans to formally unveil the initiative during a speech at an NAACP gathering in Cincinnati and will then highlight her commitment by attending an event with volunteers who have been out signing up voters.
Asian Americans are likely to be a big part of that effort. They are the fastest-growing racial group in the United States, with political power that neither party has fully harnessed. Their growth and the emergence of immigration as a leading campaign issue have brought states such as Virginia, Florida, Nevada and Ohio into focus this year as fertile ground.
They have also brought individual counties into focus among a much larger group of states, including several battleground states in the industrial Midwest and Georgia, where an expanding educated workforce and growing immigrant population are thought to have the potential, eventually, to flip this Republican state from red to blue.
In all these places, thousands of U.S. citizens of Asian descent aren’t registered to vote.
Many haven’t voted for a simple reason: They never thought to do so, and no one approached them about it before. They say they are unfamiliar with the American voting process and display tacit apathy. That makes them ripe for education and persuasion, and it explains why civic organizations across the country are working to engage them in politics, one voter at a time.
In Gwinnett County, outside Atlanta, the Asian population has grown more recently than in states such as California, Virginia and New York. Here, the grass-roots effort is slow and painstaking, relying on volunteers like Nguyen, proficient in eligible voters’ language and able to explain registration deadlines as well as the intersection of policy and everyday life.
The voter drive at Hong Kong Supermarket was led by Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAAJ), a nonpartisan civic group with an Atlanta chapter. It was part of an effort throughout June specifically targeting Vietnamese Americans; it included drives at two Vietnamese churches that registered 160 new voters.
Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders comprise at least 5 percent of the voting-age population in six states, and more than 10 percent in California and Hawaii, according to research conducted by Karthick Ramakrishnan, a political science professor at the University of California at Riverside.
They also comprise at least 5 percent of the voting population in 73 counties, and more than 10 percent in 33 of them. Gwinnett County is home to one of the three highest populations of Asian Americans — mainly South Asians, Koreans, Chinese and Vietnamese.
That makes these Americans a potentially valuable slice of the electorate, able to make the difference in battleground states where margins of victory are slim.
AAAJ is part of a coalition of Asian American/Pacific Islander organizations directing civic engagement and voter outreach this year. The effort is ongoing in at least 25 states, tapping into existing community, faith, legal-aid and health organizations and creating local branches of national civic organizations in key areas such as Gwinnett County.
The goal is challenging. How do you empower a generation of immigrants who have found a fail-safe formula in working hard, keeping your head down and providing for your family? How do you accommodate the many languages, religions and cultural attitudes encompassed under the sweeping label “Asian American”?
“Culturally, they’re coming from countries where politics are crooked, or you just don’t want to have an opinion. This is the struggle,” said Christine Chen, executive director of APIAVote, a national nonpartisan organization that works to mobilize Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. “We’re making inroads, but there’s still a lot more work to be done. . . . We want to shift the culture, so that way it’s normal and it’s expected you participate.”
Asian Americans have not traditionally identified with a party, and 37 percent of registered Asian Americans still don’t. There has, however, been a shift toward the Democratic Party among registered voters between 2012 and 2016, according to a national survey of registered Asian American voters released last month by a coalition of civic engagement groups.
Anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric has particularly galvanized immigrant communities in Georgia, where three bills restricting immigrant rights were defeated this spring in the state legislature.
“We want to change the state,” said Stephanie Cho, executive director of AAAJ-Atlanta. “We want to [show] we are an important part of Georgia, not just for the brain drain . . . or the businesses that we bring, but also everything about us, our culture, who we are and what we bring to this region.”
Phi Nguyen, a second-generation Vietnamese American attorney in Atlanta, became a volunteer with AAAJ-Atlanta once she saw a lack of people who looked like her in civic engagement and politics throughout Atlanta. She helped lead a recent training for more than two dozen volunteers, where she drew laughs as she acted out scenarios they may face at a registration drive: disinterested or difficult voters or outright rejections. Yet they were regular responses she’s come across over the past three years.
“A lot of Vietnamese people care more about what’s happening in Vietnam than here. I understand that and appreciate that and respect that. But it’s hard to get more people to care about what happens here,” said Nguyen, 31. “But I’m surprised by how many people we’ve been able to pull in, in a short amount of time, who really care and are motivated to keep working, and making this a long-term initiative.”
John Wagner contributed to this report.