For a century, the League of Women Voters in Florida reached out to marginalized residents by helping them register to vote — and in recent years that effort has extended to the growing Asian American and Asian immigrant communities.
But a state law signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis in May would have forced the group to change its strategy.
The law would have fined third-party voter registration organizations $50,000 if the staff or volunteers processing or collecting the forms were convicted of a criminal offense or are not US citizens.
A federal judge blocked the provision this week. But its passing reflects efforts by DeSantis, a Republican presidential candidate, and other GOP leaders to shut down ballot access. Florida is one of at least six states, including Georgia and Texas, where Republicans have enacted electoral rules since 2021 that provide for or increase criminal penalties and fines for individuals and groups who support voters. Several of these laws also face legal challenges.
Meanwhile, suffrage advocates are being forced to adapt quickly to the changing environment. For example, prior to the Florida ruling, the League of Women Voters began using online links and QR codes for public relations. It removed the face-to-face connection between its workers and communities, replacing it with digital tools that would likely become a technological barrier.
“If there’s no language access, we can’t reach as many people, which impacts AAPI voters in particular,” Executive Director Leah Nash said, referring to the state’s Asian American and Pacific Island populations, which have been growing rapidly where more than 30% of adults have limited knowledge of English. “If we just give someone our website or our QR code so they can register, we don’t know for sure if they will, and we want as many people as possible to register to vote.”
In states where penalties are increasingly harsh, the developments have sowed fear and confusion among groups that provide translators, voter registration assistance and postal voting assistance — tasks that voter advocates say are critical to Asian communities in particular.
In a number of countries, language barriers are already making it difficult for a rapidly growing population to vote. According to census data, the population of Asian, Hawaiian and other Pacific Islanders grew by 35% between 2010 and 2020. The new laws in predominantly Republican-run states are seen by many constituencies as another form of voter suppression.
“It is specifically aimed at voters with limited English skills, and that includes AAPI voters,” said Meredyth Yoon, process director at Asian Americans Advancing Justice in Atlanta.
Yoon added that record turnout in Georgia’s 2020 election prompted the Republican-dominated legislature to enact sweeping voter caps: “It’s no coincidence,” she said.
In Texas, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill in June that would make the punishment of illegal voting a felony, an upgrade to the misdemeanor charge that was part of a broader election law passed two years earlier.
Alice Yi, a Chinese and American, used to help translate in Austin, Texas, but said the new law isn’t clear about whether bona fide errors will be penalized and worried she’d get into trouble by offering help could.
Yi recalls being approached by a Vietnamese-American man asking for help during a primary in 2022 because he had never voted and didn’t speak English. She said she was immediately afraid that if she helped him, she would face consequences.
“That’s the fear I face,” she said.
Now, she said, she will help her father vote, but no one else.
But voter advocates like Ashley Cheng — also in Austin — continue to work to reach Asian voters despite the threat of jail time.
Cheng, the founding president of Asian Texans for Justice, recalls finding out her mother wasn’t on the voter rolls when she tried to help her vote in 2018. They never found out why she wasn’t properly registered. Proponents say this highlights weaknesses in the system and the importance of volunteers in overcoming them.
The group’s own research found that about two-thirds of Asian voters in Texas were highly motivated to vote in the 2022 midterm election. Cheng said this desire fueled her enthusiasm to help the community count their votes.
“It’s really easy to feel, ‘Oh, I’d rather not try anymore,'” she said. “But I think of people like my mother and so many others in the Asian diaspora living in Texas who have the experience of wanting to vote but for some reason can’t and feeling like it’s not accessible .”
For example, according to 2022 Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote (APIA Vote) data, about 34% of Asian American adults in Texas have limited English proficiency.
Farha Ahmed, an attorney in Texas, said the increased responsibility of providing these marginalized communities with access to the ballot box forced her to choose not to continue serving as an electoral judge, a position that administers election processes and resolves disputes over electoral laws .
“There’s not a lot of resources and there’s not a lot of protection,” said Ahmed, who lives in Sugarland, just outside of Houston. “Electoral judges want to help make voting easier for people, but with these new laws, they’re not sure where their liability lies when in reality they’re just trying to do their best to help.”
Prior to Florida and Texas, Georgia legislators revised that state’s election laws.
A section of Georgia’s election law for 2021 made it an offense to offer money or gifts to a voter at polling stations. This included distributing water and snacks to the queues. Attempts to get a court to lift the snack and water ban have so far been unsuccessful.
James Woo, the communications director for Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta, said he won’t even give his parents a sip of water while he helps them with their ballots.
“Such simple things that would have served as a conversation starter or just helped them throughout the process could be seen as something illegal for me to do,” he said.
Associated Press writer Mike Schneider, of Orlando, Florida, contributed to this report.
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