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Commentary Election 2022 Government & Politics

Opinion: Asian-American and Pacific Islander voters are a rising force in Maryland politics

A mailer for the District 9A Democratic team in the recent legislative elections. Courtesy of Jonathon Rowland.

By Jonathon Rowland

The writer has been involved in electing AAPI candidates for the past decade, from statewide races to local school boards. He currently serves on the boards of the Maryland Democratic Party Asian American Pacific Islander Diversity Leadership Council & Asian Americans Mobilize, Organize, Vote & Empower (AAMOVE), and is the managing partner of Fells Group.

Too often post-election pundits can’t help but paint broad brushes of why certain demographics did or did not turn out and why they voted the way they did. When things go wrong for one party or right with the other, the analysis centers on messaging, strategy, and outreach.

In Maryland, Asian-American and Pacific Islander voters are too often seen as a monolith. As a result, grass-roots or media outreach is rarely comprehensive.

Intentional AAPI outreach requires time and effort — candidates and aligned organizations must work with community and business leaders across the AAPI spectrum to pinpoint the issues that are important to this very diverse community. In some districts, it can be the difference between winning and losing.

This was certainly the case in the competitive 9th legislative district race where Maryland Democrats are overjoyed with historic wins. This district encompasses a large part of Howard County and a piece of northern Montgomery County. The district’s three House seats are grouped into the “subdistricts” 9A and 9B. What some may not know is that one in four potential voters (18+) identify as Asian-American or Pacific Islander in District 9 — the second largest percentage in the state after Montgomery County’s District 15.

Democratic candidates for delegate in 9A, Natalie Zeigler and Chao Wu won ahead of longtime Republican incumbent, Trent Kittleman. Sen. Katie Fry Hester — who represents all of District 9 — and Del. Courtney Watson (9B) won re-election in a landslide. It’s without a doubt that AAPI voters played a critical part in the outcome.

AAPIs are one of the fastest growing populations in Maryland and, in 13 House districts, make up 10% or more of the voting population. Thirty-three delegates and 13 senators in total represent these districts with sizable AAPI populations. Candidates who ignore this group do so at their own peril, and reaching this group requires nuance and the correct messaging.

With that, here are a few tips when considering your AAPI outreach strategy.

  1. Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are diverse, ethnically and politically, with unique histories. Your outreach strategy needs to reflect that. A one-size-fits-all message won’t work.
  2. Go to where the media are consumed. Traditional outreach methods such as Facebook and local media aren’t enough. AAPIs consume media through a variety of outlets, including social media channels such as WeChat and hyper-local in-language publications.
  3. Reach out to this community — even if this group represents a small portion of your electorate! Elections are won in the margins. A recent poll found that over half of AAPI voters have never been contacted by a political party.
  4. Translation of ads is important but should not be an impediment to candidates reaching out to AAPI voters. A large majority of consistent AAPI voters are either monolingual English or bilingual speakers. It’s the message and narrative that are important. They need to reflect the community’s priorities. In addition, most in-language ethnic media outlets will translate your ads if you purchase ad space with them.

Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are the fastest-growing populations in the United States, with record turnout during the last election cycle. Keep that in mind when planning your campaign outreach strategy.