Asian American voter turnout was up 91% on Election Day 2020 compared to 2016. Aisha Yaqoob Mahmood with Asian Americans Advancing Justice's Atlanta chapter describes how activists made that happen.



Many groups can claim credit for flipping Georgia, blue but here's one statistic - the number of Asian American and Pacific Islanders in Georgia who voted in this year's election was nearly double compared to 2016. So how did that happen? Aisha Yaqoob Mahmood is with the Progressive Asian American Advocacy Fund in Georgia, and she points to five counties around Atlanta that saw the bulk of the participation. That included her home county of Gwinnett.

AISHA YAQOOB MAHMOOD: Gwinnett County in 2016 became a majority minority county and flipped for the first time to elect a Democratic president with Hillary Clinton. Yet, in 2016, we had an all-white, all-Republican county commission and all-white, all-Republican school board. Fast-forward to 2020, we now have an all-Democratic, all-people-of-color county commission and a majority people of color school board in Gwinnett. So you can see just the demographic shifts but also the political shifts that are really, in part, due to the work of organizing.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, let's talk about that organization because you did a lot of work leading up to the election. Asian Americans, first, we should say, are diverse - right? - socioeconomically, in regards to religion, country of origin, but they did vote overwhelmingly Democratic this election. Why? What issues matter to them?

MAHMOOD: COVID and COVID relief was at top of mind for a lot of our families, as was health care. It was apparent that this year was the year for health care to be the top issue for our families because we knew how the lack of health care has come to impact our communities. Education continues to be at the forefront - just how expensive it is to access public education and public universities these days. But honestly, our communities also care very deeply about immigration reform, making sure that they can support their families who still want to come to this country through family-based immigration. We talk a lot about what it means for our communities because of the increased immigration enforcement with the Trump administration and what could change with a new presidency.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let me ask you this. Indian Americans are the largest Asian American group in Georgia. Was Kamala Harris a factor in turning them out?

MAHMOOD: Definitely. I have spoken to so many Indian American community members who were, you know, they were already motivated and already excited about this election cycle. But it definitely motivated them to do more and to be more loud and to be more proud of supporting a Democratic ticket. And for a lot of people who maybe were on the fence about Trump or Biden, it really helped to tip the scales in Biden's favor.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What was the playbook for how to reach voters that traditionally had really not been engaged in politics?

MAHMOOD: Our playbook wasn't just the work that we did in 2020, but it's years of organizing in our communities. As you know, within such a diverse Asian American community, we can't just have one AAPI organizer and call it a day. We have to have very specific ethnic organizers that are doing the very important and very specific organizing necessary for some of these communities. So what that looked like was having, you know, a Korean organizer talk to Korean elders or having a younger Korean organizer talk to younger generation Korean Americans and really replicating that for each community.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And language.

MAHMOOD: For sure. I mean, language access is always a big thing for us. So, you know, we're really glad that a lot of campaigns are finally starting to think about language access, but it also goes beyond that. We also make sure that outreach is available in language, when we're knocking on doors or talking to voters on the phone, that we have in-language volunteers and staff making those calls but also having two-way communication to let voters know that they can always reach back out to us if they have questions.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So I guess the big question now is, how are you feeling about the Georgia Senate races? Is there enthusiasm? Will Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders turn out in a few weeks in the same way that they did in the presidential race?

MAHMOOD: There is definitely enthusiasm still in our communities, but it's really important for us to keep that momentum up to make sure that people just don't get complacent and assume that because Georgia is blue, that it will stay blue. People are also tired. You know, Georgia became a battleground state very late in the cycle for some people, and so the last few weeks before the election were a lot for our people. They were getting calls and text messages and mail almost every day, and that has just picked right back up since the runoff. So not only are we dealing with logistical challenges with the holidays, but we're also dealing with some exhaustion with being contacted. But it'll be on us to make sure that we can continue to do the outreach in the most effective way possible so that we can really drown out the other noise and talk to our voters in a way that resonates with them better.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Aisha Yaqoob Mahmood is the executive director of the Progressive Asian American Advocacy Fund. Thank you very much.

MAHMOOD: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.