|Election Date||Voter Registration||Vote-by-Mail Ballot Request|
|June 7, 2016, Presidential Primary Election 7:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.||Online or Postmark by May 23, 2016||Must arrive by May 31, 2016|
At a time when polarizing language about immigrants floods media channels, any minority community that lacks government representation is in danger of being misrepresented, or worse, forgotten. Unless Indian Americans unite for political activism, we will see opportunities for advancement pass us by.
When Vivek Murthy was appointed to the post of Surgeon General, and when Aneesh Chopra became the Chief Technology Officer of the United States we secretly rejoiced. Our eyes lit up, a smile hovered on our lips, and our fingers reached for the share button. Many of us didn’t know the person. We only knew that the name is of Indian origin and therefore they became aspirational models for us.
But the real aspirational question to ponder is why, in a country where upwards of 2.8 million Indian Americans reside, are there not more of us occupying seats in Congress? And why should we care?
The prototypical Indian American is part of a nuclear family and has a well to do job in one of the STEM/Computer related (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) industries. Indian American children according to census data generally come from two-parent, highly educated households and get traditionally employable degrees.
The Indian American community contributes a large part to both job and wealth creation in the Valley and around the country.
Studies typecast the Indian voter as socially liberal, fiscally conservative, and willing to give money to political campaigns. Despite the emergence of the Silicon Valley as a Democratic campaign-funding hub (the Hillary Clinton campaign has raised a significant portion of funds from the Valley), Indian American voters have yet to mobilize behind a candidate at the polls on Election Day.
And, despite the increase in the political potential of the community, candidates do not reach out and address Indian American voters directly. This is because Indian Americans do not vote together en bloc.
The ultimate goal of voting en bloc is to politically empower by making members of a community vote and donate together, thereby amplifying their voice.
Unless Indian Americans unite in the name of political activism, we will see opportunities for advancement pass us by.
Indian American voters have the potential to become a key voting demographic in California’s 17th district, an area with a very high Indian American population. The two congressional candidates in the 17th district are no strangers to this community.
Young, hardworking congressional candidate Ro Khanna is dedicated to increasing the political clout of the Indian community. Longtime congressional incumbent Mike Honda has served the district for many years and is in tune with the Indian American population that makes up his district.
Yet, in the last congressional election for California’s 17th district, an election in a highly concentrated Indian American district, the number of registered Indian American voters was 20,000, but only 3,000 of those voters showed up at the polls.
So, let’s look at the kind of voters we are and why we behave the way we do.
Abhinav and Priyanka—Those Who are Ineligible to Vote in the United States
Abhinav is ineligible to vote. He has only recently moved to the United States and has yet to become a citizen. This does not stop Abhinav from donating or volunteering towards political campaigns. The same can be said for Priyanka, who is too young to vote in the current elections.
It is people like Priyanka and Abhinav who are in need of assistance rather than the more stable established members of the community.
Tarun—Those Who are Eligible to Vote But Do Not
Tarun has no voting history and may have no interest in politics, but is still helpful in answering the question “what is the psyche of the Indian American voter?” Tarun sees the large complicated political system as something daunting, something that he does not understand. With political parties and lobbyist groups changing around districts and confusion as to how one registers to vote, it is easy to feel overwhelmed before even starting.
In order to be an informed voter, he must choose a political party; understand the process of primaries, state elections, the Electoral College; and know how all these things tie in together to make the political machine that governs the United States.
Moving past the challenge of gaining an elementary knowledge of the political system brings us to the second obstacle facing the unregistered and novice Indian American voter: a lack of active political discussion in the community.
It is often through political discourse and friendly debate that people understand the current issues, side with a candidate, and ultimately go out and vote. With such a large Indian American population in the Silicon Valley, it is not hard to imagine that Tarun’s social circle lacks diversity. Such a situation makes it hard for the unregistered voter to get a firm grasp of issues. Tarun is likely focusing on things that are more relevant to his social group, i.e. the newest technology, the Warriors amazing season, or the hottest new restaurant. This allows Tarun to avoid the political frenzy, but strips him of his inherent democratic power.
Tarun must first educate himself on the voting process. Indian American leaders should then create a platform for community discussion and rally community members together behind candidates on Election Day. This strategy amplifies the Indian American voice on issues such as education and immigration.
Puja—Those Who Do Possess a Voting History
Puja is, perhaps, just too busy on Election Day. Puja is constantly rushing between work, children’s activities, cups of chai, and whatever other hurdles the world puts in her way. In this whirlwind of scheduled and unscheduled activities, Puja cannot carve out time to go to the polls and vote in an election.
This holds even truer when Puja feels that the results of that election won’t directly impact her life. Indian American voters tend to be financially established and are not pushed to the polls by a personal reliance on the living wage or the prospect of social security.
Candidates like Ro Khanna who are in need of the Indian American vote are urging members of the community to sign up for absentee ballots. Absentee voting allows Puja to mail-in her ballot rather than drive to the polls.
These ballots also allow for a couple of weeks of extra time. Candidates emphasize the issues that can be dealt with on a local level in an attempt to show Puja that her vote does have a tangible impact. Topics such as road congestion, pollution, and local level projects are often highlighted. For candidates who are expressly attempting to reach Indian American voters, there has been an effort to show that the current policy making will affect future generations.
Puja and people like her who cannot identify with the American political system significantly decrease voter turnout.
On the one hand, Puja still feels a strong connection with Indian politics. In speaking with members of the Indian American community, it is clear that given the chance many of them would choose to vote in the Indian election, revealing that they are politically conscious. Yet these same people do not vote in American elections. Some like Puja feel more comfortable using the Indian political infrastructure than the American one. The Indian system provides infrastructure familiarity, process familiarity, connection to political parties, a larger sense of impact by voting in India, more political discourse among friends, and ultimately a larger connection with India as being one’s “home” country.
Creating an Indian American bloc vote that brings together Abhinav, Priyanka, Tarun, Puja, and the groups that they represent should be a priority in these months leading up to the election.
Soon, the nation will decide which issues are important and in which direction the nation shall sail. Without coming together as a community, Indian Americans are in significant danger of being left out of the national conversation or worse being slandered with no political voice to defend them. We have a choice to be engaged or enraged but not the choice to be uninvolved. Once we have made our way to the country of our choice we have to lay deep the foundation on which our heritage home is being built.
Understanding a new set of rules is especially difficult when the rules are constantly changing. For example, this year voters in California are able to register at the DMV, which was previously not possible. When registering to vote, each citizen is given the option to register as either a Democrat, a Republican, or as a non-partisan. This decision then dictates whether or not one is allowed to vote in certain primary elections. The state sends a letter in the mail giving proof of registration.
Polls are open in most states from seven in the morning to eight o’clock at night, and each voter must be registered at least fifteen days prior to Election Day. A successful voting infrastructure ensures that everybody understands the voting process and marks their calendars.
Debate and Discussion
Democracy is said to flourish through debate and discussion. Many things factor into the final voting decision of every American.
George Lakoff, a cognitive science professor at UC Berkeley, found that people’s voting tendencies are dictated by the metaphors they use to describe politics and the government. Professor Lakoff identified the metaphor of “the nation as a family,” as the metaphor used by Anglo-Saxon Americans when deciding which political party they associate themselves with. Those who believe the best way to run a family is by centering the family around a strong father, who believes in teaching children the strict difference between right and wrong, tend to vote conservative. While, those who view family as a nurturing loving force in which the objective is teaching children the values of love and inclusiveness, tend to vote democratic.
Lakoff’s analysis about the importance metaphors play in the way voters behave can be used to understand the psyche of the Indian American voter.
The argumentative Indian, a phrase taken from Amartya Sen’s The Argumentative Indian, among other things refers to the Indian American community’s reluctance to back a majority candidate. Indian Americans are less likely than other minority groups to rally behind one candidate. Sen makes clear that democracy and the discussion that comes along with it are concepts deeply rooted in Indian culture and are not intellectual gifts given to India from the West. The history of democratic discussion and an emphasis on reason within the Indian community shapes the way Indian American voters address the political system.
Indian Americans have established themselves as well educated, intellectual leaders in a variety of industries, however constant political discussion from a philosophical perspective may have stunted the community’s ability to make a tangible impact. Discussion with inaction has become the hallmark of the community. Paralysis by analysis freezes some while laziness and differing priorities hamper others. The result being we run the field but don’t score the goal.
Voters feel their vote does not affect their lives. India’s rapid shift first towards independence and then towards development has made the Indian voter accustomed to feeling as though they are voting for large causes. This leaves the Indian American voter reluctant to vote unless driven by a very significant and immediate call to action.
Campaign funding is an integral part of any successful political campaign. Communities that can raise large amounts of political donations with alacrity become very powerful politically. Indian Americans have the financial ability as a community to raise large amounts of capital, but lack the necessary organization to make a large-scale effect. Many Indian Americans are currently donating substantial amounts of money to a variety of campaigns, but there is no system in which community leaders can help pool and strategically guide resources.
The most important part of any election is mobilizing voters. This includes registering voters that are not registered, convincing registered voters to vote, and persuading voters to vote en bloc. This maximizes and increases the political clout of the community.
Registering new voters can be achieved through citizen outreach and new voter education. Members of the Indian American community must come together, create volunteer groups, and formulate outreach programs. Grass roots organization is easy, thanks to thriving hubs like the India Community Center. Other groups in the region have been successful at this. The Bay Area Jewish community has utilized community centers, youth programs, and areas of religious congregation as platforms for reaching potential voters.
A 2015 study done by Bernard Fraga at Indiana University showed that minority voters are not drawn to vote solely based on the ethnicity of the candidate. Minority voters were more likely to vote if they resided in a majority-minority district. This means that if minority voters live in a congressional district that is largely made up of the same minority group as them, then they are less likely to vote versus if they lived in a district that was mainly made up of Anglo Saxons. These two findings play a large role in the mind of the Bay Area Indian American voter, due to the Silicon Valley’s high Indian population in relation to other parts of the country.
The question remains, what is the point of voting en bloc? Successful en bloc voting inspires the next generation, creates an avenue for future candidates, shapes a platform for issues important to the community, and brings attention to community events.
Inspire Our Children
Indian American children growing up in the Bay Area can see Indian leaders in nearly every industry. However, children of Indian descent may struggle to envision life as an active member of the political community, because there is a cohesive lack of political engagement. A strong community presence in politics can provide possibilities to the next generation. In the same way that the political engagement of the Latino community paved the way for minority candidates, such as Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.
Pave the Way for Candidates
Since the first inauguration of President Obama, the number of Indian Americans in high-level political positions has increased. Following the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the Indian American community had the opportunity to push for the nomination of Sri Srinivasan, a supremly qualified judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Judge Srinivasan has a good reputation with both the Democratic and Republican Party. Sri is the only Obama appointed judge to be unanimously confirmed for his current position. For an Indian American immigrant to be appointed to the highest court in the land could have been seen as the pinnacle of political achievement for the community. A voting infrastructure could have greatly helped persuade Congress members to consider the clout of the appointment.
Highlight Community Issues
The power of the African American community’s bloc vote has made criminal justice reform a key issue in the presidential election. The same can be said about the connection between LGBTQ communities voting power and the recent legal strides towards gender equality. The formation of an Indian American political machine applies greater value to issues that are important to the community, i.e. education and immigration.
Bring Attention to Community Events
As a vibrant ambitious community known for its cultural traditions, religious engagement, and its love to party, the Indian community is regularly hosting community events. Our community events however lack a political presence. As a comparison, within the same congressional district, Vietnamese events constantly have members from the government in observance, ranging from city councilmen all the way up to congressmen. Despite being much smaller in population than the Indian American community, the Vietnamese American community is known for consistently voting en bloc and in high numbers. The Vietnamese voting infrastructure is better at harnessing the voting power of the local community, and gets political attention at their events. This then allows the community to highlight important issues as well as publicize its events.
What then must we do today to ensure a better tomorrow? Building a political infrastructure starts one person at a time. Let us all be that one person. With the elections in June and November are fast approaching, we must complete three simple steps. We must register and educate ourselves as voters. We must have political discussions with our friends and neighbors. Lastly, most importantly, we must vote.
Roshn Marwah is student of political science. He can be reached at [email protected]