“First we held vigil,” former congressional candidate Gina Ortiz Jones posted on Facebook Sunday. “Now we vote.”
Jones was referring to a March 20 event where San Antonians gathered to remember the people killed by a gunman in Atlanta earlier this month and condemn anti-Asian racism. The shooter, who was white, targeted multiple Asian-owned spas and killed eight, six of whom were Asian women. Just days before, local Asian-owned restaurant Noodle Tree was vandalized with anti-Asian phrases: “Kung flu,” “hope u die,” “commie,” “go back to China.”
Now, Jones has partnered with the Alamo Asian American Chamber of Commerce, the Asian American Alliance of San Antonio, and the Philippine Nurses Association of San Antonio to host voter registration drives at local businesses owned by Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders on Wednesday and Thursday. Authorities have documented a spike in anti-Asian racism in the United States in the past year, and one of the ways people can push back against that racism is by voting, Jones said.
“It’s important that we have our voices heard in the most important way,” said Jones, a first-generation Filipino American and two-time Congressional candidate. “And that’s at the ballot box. … It’s important that we have our voices heard, that we are well represented, and that our community is well served and certainly well protected.”
Voter deputy registrars will help Bexar County residents register to vote Wednesday and Thursday at four different businesses ahead of the April 1 voter registration deadline for the May 1 city election. One of the businesses, Best Quality Daughter, will welcome would-be voters on the pink porch of the restaurant. Jennifer Hwa Dobbertin, one of the owners and chefs, said doing so was “an easy yes.”
“I think everyone should be engaged in what’s going on in local politics, and if you’re able to vote, register to vote,” she said.
The relatively low turnout of Asian American and Pacific Islander voters has been documented and discussed for years. In 2016, nearly 63% of white Americans said they voted in the November presidential election, while only 49% of Asian Americans said the same thing. However, the Asian American vote climbed significantly across the country in 2020; national nonprofit APIAVote noted that the early votes cast by Asian American and Pacific Islander voters increased by 310% in the 2020 presidential election compared to 2016.
Though she didn’t know the exact turnout of Bexar County Asian American voters in the last election, Jones pointed to the national increase in voter turnout as an encouraging sign. She also pointed out that municipal elections in general have low participation rates. In 2019, only 11.5 percent of registered Bexar County voters voted in the May municipal elections. That was a slight improvement from 2017, when only 11.3 percent voted.
“There’s always room for improvement throughout our entire county,” Jones said. “We’re going to have a municipal election year and it looks like we’ll be lucky to get 15% voter engagement. That’s not specific to any particular group and so we all have to do our part. Whether you care about stopping Asian hate or whether you care about COVID-19 vaccine waitlist, you’ve got to make sure that you’ve got leaders at the local level fighting to serve you as best they can.”
Voting is a priority for employees at Best Quality Daughter and Tenko Ramen, which Dobbertin also co-owns. Both restaurants give employees paid time off to vote, she said. But she also hesitated when linking the importance of voting with ongoing anti-Asian discrimination.
“I think a lot of Asians are experiencing fear right now to speak up about this kind of stuff,” said Dobbertin, who is Chinese American. “So even with this question, I don’t want to say anything that’s going to put a target on my business. I think there is a lot of harassment going on out there.”
Jones said Noodle Tree owner Mike Nguyen, who has been outspoken about requiring masks at businesses, continues to receive death threats. An email sent to the restaurant went unanswered, and Noodle Tree’s voice mailbox was full.
Myra Dumapias, lead community organizer with advocacy group AAPIs for Justice-San Antonio, said that her organization promotes voter registration, voter turnout, and civic engagement.
The group has participated in redistricting hearings and “focused on working with political and community leaders with a track record of being invested in the AAPI community who are sensitive to vulnerable populations,” Dumapias said in an email.
According to a 2020 survey conducted by APIAVote, though there is diversity in geographic region, religion, and national origin within the community, Asian American and Pacific Islander voters often coalesced around similar priorities like immigration and health care. The latter is an issue that the Philippine Nurses Association of San Antonio champions as a group dedicated to helping nurses.
“We realize that we need to have a voice out there … And if you want to make changes like improving the health of the community, you have to have the right people there that support the health of the community,” said Maria Danet Lapiz Bluhm, a current board member and former president of the association. “And how can you have the right people there if you don’t register to vote?”
In order to vote in the May 1 municipal elections, Bexar County residents must be registered to vote by April 1. Find more information here on how to do so.