America is on the cusp of an election that may have dramatic implications for the nation and for much of the world that until recently relied on it for leadership – and still might in future. At this time, the US census shows South Asian vote has risen 43 percent, from 3.99 million in 2011 to 5.7 in 2018, Indians alone making up 56 percent of that group that year at 3.1 million, even if all of them are not citizens. More important perhaps, Indians also have the financial heft to drive the political agenda.
The community has become more politically engaged, with some members even reconsidering their traditional support for the Democrats. A recent survey, conducted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Johns Hopkins-SAIS, and the University of Pennsylvania showed that 72 percent of Indian-American voters backed the Democrats, while 22 percent stood by Republicans. But many members are still reluctant to engage. South Asian Americans Leading Together, a non-profit group that works to ensure racial justice and civil rights, has argued that South Asians endure “voter intimidation and harassment, insufficient bilingual materials and interpreters at the pools, even when mandated by law, and illegal identification requirements.”
It is against this backdrop that SEEMA organized an event Friday, October 29, with Nandini DasGupta and Heena Patel, co-founders of South Asians Vote, a non-partisan, non-profit group to increase South Asian voter turnout.
As organizer Seema Kumar, the founder of SEEMA, put it, “Even though we’ve been a part of the American fabric for more than two centuries, and we’ve grown so much in the last decade our voices are often unheard. We need to actually make sure that we’re heard.”
DasGupta, a New York-based digital marketing professional, said that during a rather tough COVID-19 dominated year for everyone she wanted to do something positive. Not being in healthcare, she decided she could do something else.
“It is very normal for people to feel disheartened or despondent, especially in this election cycle, especially in the last couple of months,” she said, adding that she decided to inspire people to know they could play a role as big as anyone else.”
The multi-talented Patel – at various times a dancer, choreographer, tabla player, sanitation engineer, entrepreneur, organizer and manager – said that South Asians Vote “really emerged from the fact that elections are important, but South Asians in general, as a demographic have historically not shown up. When we think about the fact that every part of our life is affected by policymakers, whether we understand how it is or not…”
According to her, the idea of representation also meant choosing the people that represent you.
“I really wasn’t seeing the political campaigns paying a lot of attention to the South Asian demographic, right? Because we have been historically, a demographic that really is hard to persuade to show up to the polls,” she said. “I think in the United States and around the world, we’re seeing the power of democracy … starting to crumble because we have not been participating. So it was really important to engage the community that I belong to, to participate.”
She said that while voting could appear complex, it took just a few minutes and was simpler than it looked.
“It’s a matter of just showing up and just putting in it takes, like, what? Three minutes? Five minutes? Right. So how do you convince people that, you know, it shouldn’t be so overwhelming,”
DasGupta corrected her there.
“The way you said it is technically only a half true,” she said. “What we’ve definitely learned and experienced over the last 10-12 weeks is that even in the states with supposedly the most simplest of processes. It’s still pretty complicated.” DasGupta argued that there was a need to cut through the noise to know the date for registration and voting applicable in each state, breaking down the information into simple units, so that the process is never scary.
The conversation went back and forth, discussing the various problems the group was addressing and the various strategies the team had come up with address them.
The upshot was that South Asians could make themselves heard – as long as they relied on courage to speak up, and strategy to ensure they could not be ignored.
For more information about the site, and a toolkit to help spread the word, visit the South Asians Vote website.