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Get-out-the-vote, LA style: Phone bank operators work in 17 Asian languages

Volunteers at a phone bank organized by Asian Americans Advancing Justice in Los Angeles are trying to reach voters in 17 different languages.
Volunteers at a phone bank organized by Asian Americans Advancing Justice in Los Angeles are trying to reach voters in 17 different languages.
Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

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In an office building near downtown Los Angeles, a couple dozen volunteers recently worked their way through lists of Asian American registered voters – young voters, newly registered voters, and voters who have a poor track record of participation. They wanted to know if people on the list planned to vote in November and took the opportunity to urge them to get to the polls.

In one corner of the room, a volunteer spoke Mandarin, in another, a young woman offered to speak Urdu to the voter on the line. From a room down the hall, Vietnamese and Tagalog could be heard. 

“We’re actually doing one of the largest phone bank operations, not necessarily in voter numbers, but in language numbers,” said Tanzila Ahmed, one of the organizers and voter engagement manager for Asian Americans Advancing Justice, a local civil rights and civic engagement group that’s coordinating the effort.

“We are actually making calls in 17 different languages, and we are using volunteers of the same ethnicity to make those calls to their communities," she said.

While get-out-the-vote phone banks are commonplace this time of year, this one is unique. The languages used by the volunteers - most of them college and high school-aged children of immigrants - span Asia and beyond, from Japan to the Arabian peninsula.

 “We have Arabic, Bengali, Burmese, Cambodian, Mandarin and Cantonese, Tagalog, Hindi, Japanese, Korean, Malaysian, Urdu, Punjabi, Samoan, Thai, Tongan, and Vietnamese,” Ahmed said.

All of them, she adds, are languages spoken in Los Angeles.

Asian Americans are a diverse bunch, both culturally and linguistically. And, unlike with Latinos, whose ranks in the United States are becoming increasingly native-born, the growth in the Asian American population is fueled mostly by immigrants - people who do eventually become citizens and are eligible to vote, but often don’t.

 “The participation of Asian Americans tends to be lower than the national average, or the average for California,” said Karthick Ramakrishman, a political scientist at UC Riverside.

In the 2012 national election, only 47 percent of Asian American adults cast ballots, he said – the lowest participation of any major ethnic group, slightly lower than that of Latinos. Although both groups have made gains in recent years, both have historically poor turnout.

The fact that many Asian voters and potential voters are foreign-born factors into turnout at the polls, according to Ramakrishnan. In California, he said, 65 percent of Asian American registered voters are foreign born, for example.

“A lot of them have language needs, and even those who don’t have language needs are not as familiar with the US political system,” he said, “and they have not been reached out to much by political parties and campaigns.”

Get-out-the-vote efforts, including old-fashioned phone banks, have been shown to yield results with these voters, Ramakrishnan said.

But there are challenges, said Nadia Smita, a 17-year-old phone bank volunteer who was born in Bangladesh. Like the other volunteers, she starts out in English, then listens for cues to see if she should switch to Bengali. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

“I actually started taking to somebody in Bengali, like I transferred from English to Bengali, and she yelled at me in English and she’s like, ‘I already said in English that I understand English!’” Smita said.

But mostly importantly, Ahmed said, in addition to language, there’s a cultural connection being made – and she thinks this also helps.

Organizers should know later this year just how much. Academic researchers will be tracking this and other phone banks to measure any success they may have in getting the voters they contact to actually show up at the polls. The Asian outreach phone bank will be operating until the night before election day.