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NC's Asian-American Electorate Grows, But Will They Vote?

Asian American, Asian American Voters, Election 2016
Leoneda Inge
NC State Senator Jay Chaudhuri stops for tea at Mithai Indian Cafe in Cary. The cafe owner is Davina Ray, right.

A new report shows Asian Americans are the fastest-growing racial demographic in North Carolina.

It also shows this group of largely independent voters could turn out to be a key swing vote in this upcoming election – if they show up at the polls.

Getting Asian American voters to the polls during the November 8th general election is the priority of the group North Carolina Asian Americans Together, which was founded this year, just in time for the primary election.

At a recent phone bank in Raleigh, one of the group's volunteer, Ricky Leung, read from a script.

“Hi, my name is Ricky and I am calling voters on behalf of North Carolina Asian Americans Together. We’re a non-profit, non-partisan organization,” said Leung, a Chinese-American man and one of the volunteers who specifically called Asian Americans across the Triangle.

“Can we count on you to vote?" he asked the person on the line. "Yes, that’s great!”

Anyone who has spent hours calling strangers asking them about anything knows most calls go to an answering machine and there are even hang-ups, while you’re still talking.

But all the hard work is worth it, according to Chavi Koneru, Executive Director of North Carolina Asian Americans Together. Koneru is originally from the northern region of India. She helped start this organization because she felt the Asian American electorate was being ignored.

“We started trying to connect with Asian American voters and realized that the majority of them had not been contacted by any candidate parties," said Koneru. "In fact in the South, 80 percent of Asian Americans haven’t been contacted at all by a political party.”

North Carolina Asian Americans Together, the Southeast Asian Coalition in Charlotte, the Institute for Southern Studies and other advocacy groups released a report this month focusing on the “growing voice” of Asian Americans.

The report says there are 103,000 eligible Asian American voters in the state. And they represent more than 20 nationalities and ethnicities. But it also says Asian Americans have the lowest voter turnout of registered minority groups.

Allie Yee is Associate Director of the Institute for Southern Studies. She identifies as part Chinese, white and Japanese.

Asian American, Asian American Voters, Election 2016
Credit Leoneda Inge / WUNC
Lao American Robert Mady volunteers to call Asian American voters across the Triangle, to encourage them to vote.

“I think it’s really exciting that we’re building this infrastructure now so that we build these relationships and we build the culture of voting in this community that’s only going to keep growing," said Yee.

“If Asian American voters see more candidates that look like them I think it will create a greater incentive for them to turn out to vote," said Jay Chaudhuri, an attorney who was recently appointed Democratic state senator for the 16th District.

Chaudhuri's parents immigrated to the US from eastern India, and he grew up in Fayetteville. As far as the Asian-American community is concerned, he is the first-acknowledged Asian American in the North Carolina legislature.

During a recent lunch at Udupi Café on East Chatham Street in Cary, Chaudhuri said there are a lot of hopes and dreams in the area too, and they need a voice. The area is part of his district, and within half a mile, there is an Indian Grocery Store, a Bengali Sweet Shop, a Pakistani restaurant, Korean BBQ and lots more. 

“Asian American voters, I think for the most part are independent voters," Chaudhuri said. "I think the good news for either Democrats or Republicans is that, the fastest growing demographic in the state is actually up for grabs."

Like many minority groups, Asian Americans in North Carolina cite immigration, education and economic opportunity as top issues of concern. And while their numbers are not huge, their impact on Election Day may be – in a state where candidates have been known to win by less than a single percentage point. 

Leoneda Inge is the co-host of WUNC's "Due South." Leoneda has been a radio journalist for more than 30 years, spending most of her career at WUNC as the Race and Southern Culture reporter. Leoneda’s work includes stories of race, slavery, memory and monuments. She has won "Gracie" awards, an Alfred I. duPont Award and several awards from the Radio, Television, Digital News Association (RTDNA). In 2017, Leoneda was named "Journalist of Distinction" by the National Association of Black Journalists.
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