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The Indian-American Voter

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July 2004
The Indian-American Voter

Who is the Indian-American voter? What makes some of us vote and others not? How politically aware and educated are we? What are the patterns, habits, leanings, and issues that define our votes? Do we yet feel civic obligations or are we still consumed by just the material trappings of what our new country has to offer?

By DHRUTI CONTRACTOR

It was 37 years ago that Swati came to America. She and her husband started a small business, but she later stayed at home to raise her children. Because she wanted the best education for her children, she joined the local school board and remained active in it. She also cared about others in her community and listened to the problems of those who were not as fortunate as her family.

Just another concerned citizen, you say? That she is; but Swati Dandekar is also a State Representative from Iowa thanks to her philosophy of caring and involvement. For Indian-Americans, the first part of her story is very common, but the next step of actually participating in the political process is rare. Out of close to 2 million of us, there are only four others who are elected members of their State legislatures. While there are pockets of political activity, most of us continue to believe our lives are separate from politics in the United States. Many of us remain uninterested in something which is both our privilege and our duty �V voting.

Last year Khabar published an article about political activism in our community. Here, we take a look at the grassroots end of the same spectrum: Who is the Indian American voter? What makes some of us vote and others not at all? How politically aware and educated are we? What are the patterns, habits, leanings, and issues that define our votes? Do we yet feel civic obligations or are we still consumed by just the material trappings of what our new country has to offer?

According to the Indian American Center for Political Awareness (IACPA), between 50% and 75% of us should be voting. Twenty-five percent of Indian-Americans are U.S. born; 25% are naturalized citizens; and another 25% are eligible for citizenship. However, only 10% of us are registered to vote and only a fraction thereof actually go to the polls on Election Day.

Given that we come from a country that has a notable tradition in participatory democracy, it's ironic that more of us don't vote in far greater numbers over here. Think about the recent election in India �V the excitement of all the people who voted.���Young and old, rich or poor �V more than half of the Indian population voted.

Contrast this with the remarks shared at recent voter registration drives in Georgia. "If I vote, I will go to jury duty, and I do not have time for that." "It does not matter anyway; my vote does not count." "I do not want to get involved in this government." "I am not interested, thank you."

Not interested in having your voice heard? How did they develop this myth of jury duty if they vote? What happened to the excitement of the electoral process we saw in India?

Why don't more Indian-Americans vote?

A basic theory shared by political scientists is as follows: the more money and education you have, the more you will vote and participate in politics. Indian-Americans are one of the most educated and wealthiest ethnic groups in the country. So, why is our voter turnout and participation so low?

Those who are already politically active in the community have seen barriers to voting based on their experience in promoting awareness in the community. Ritesh Desai, an appointed member of the Governor's Asian American Commission, sees many systematic barriers to the voter turnout rate for the Indian American community. "First, they feel they will get jury duty if they register to vote," Desai says, acknowledging the work that must be done to correct this myth in the community.

The Department of Motor Vehicles is required to give their list to the Federal and State Jury services. In other words, if you drive in the State of Georgia you can be called for jury duty. Yet, this myth is just one of the many fears I have heard from Indian-Americans who hesitate to register to vote because they think the government will interfere in their lives. If they are not fearful of the government, it seems voting is still an inconvenience.

Dr. Narsi Narsimhan, founder of the Indian Professional Network, sees voter apathy as part of general apathy towards participating in politics. "The focus was on making a living in the United States instead of integrating with politics here," he says referring to first generation, while "the second generation is gaining much more progress in politics." But why do most Indian-Americans feel politics is separate from their daily lives? Swati Dandekar was simply being a good mother who started her involvement in politics as a way to develop quality education for her children. Political decisions affect the water we drink, the air we breathe, and the stability we have in our jobs, health care insurance, and education.

Shalini Dosi, a UGA pharmacy student, epitomizes such nonchalance (towards issues) that is somewhat common amongst immigrant communities. Even though she was concerned enough to volunteer her time at a recent voter registration drive at the Global Mela, she said that she was not interested in voting because her parents had not discussed any issues with her at home that made it compelling for her to vote. "Indian-American children are still very affected by their parents' attitudes on politics," she says. In her opinion, the attitudes of the second generation begin at home.

Taz Ahmed, the founder and Director of South Asian American Voting Youth (SAAVY), also believes in the power of their demographic group. She sees one of the greatest challenges to mobilizing the community overall is that the community does not hold the belief "that organizing is good." SAAVY is the first of its kind "that trains young people on voter mobilization specific to the South Asian community."

Naina Khanna is one of the founders of the League of Young Voters, a national progressive youth organization that gives grants to youth to do voter registration and education in their communities. She sees a disconnect between Indian-Americans and the political system in general. "They won't vote unless they see why it matters to them."

Different kinds of Indian-American voters�K

Information gleaned from six voter registration drives at community events around Atlanta and north-Georgia, suggests that there is a wide spectrum of Indian American voters.

First, there are the ineligible, non-citizens who want to be voters. These individuals are more politically aware than the average Indian-Americans who have citizenship. However, as non-citizens, they feel they have no opportunity or legitimacy to voice their opinions.

Second, the citizens who never want to be voters. This group will not vote even if they are registered to vote. They have no interest in the political system and see no value in voting or participation. Moreover, they are afraid of voting because they think the government will have more access to their information.

Third, the faithless citizen voters. This is a skeptical group that may consider voting, but they feel it makes no difference in their daily lives. They see no benefit to voting and they think of many other things that are better to do than vote. These individuals are mostly likely to believe voting gives them jury duty.

Fourth, the blind citizen voters and donors. These individuals vote regularly and may even donate money, but they do not know the candidates' priorities or issue stances. They believe their vote and money matter, but they do not take the time to hold their representatives accountable after elections.

Fifth, the informed, citizen activist voters and donors. They know their vote and money matter and why, and they will let their representatives know they are watching them. These individuals usually participate with one of the major political parties or are active with one of the national Indian-American political organizations.

What issues will determine our vote?

Do Indian-Americans who registered and intend to vote look for certain issues when evaluating candidates? Based on a survey given to 75 professionals in Atlanta over the past three months, the issues most relevant were: economy/jobs, healthcare, education, immigration and foreign policy. These five issues are also common issues to all Americans, according to Public Agenda (www.publicagenda.org), a nonprofit research group that looks at public opinion in the United States. However, other topics such as the environment, gay rights, and reproductive issues did not come up, but which are issues that are at the top of many Americans' minds.

What makes those the five top issues?

As an immigrant community that came to this country looking for opportunity, it makes sense that job security would be a top priority. The sheer number of Indians owning small businesses means that any decision the government makes regarding the economy can affect their lives directly. Amit Grover, an entrepreneur from Buckhead, believes the economy and jobs are extremely relevant issues, especially because of outsourcing which directly affects India and many Indian-Americans. Grover touches upon a key element about our voting considerations �V the difference between "Indian" and "Indian-American" issues. Something that benefits our relatives in India may or may not also benefit us here.

Sushila Sharma, a homemaker from Chattanooga, TN, has witnessed the problems in the healthcare system. "There has been no change in over 30 years. She is concerned about her physician daughter's battles against rising malpractice insurance. Sushila's comment shows that there is real emotion behind her desire for change in the healthcare system. However, this year is her first time voting in any election. It is compelling that while she knows there are changes that need to be made she does not see this connected to her vote.

Tejal Shah, a junior at Parkview High School, a nationally ranked public school, knows that Georgia ranks amongst the lowest in the country for quality public education. She also sees education as a primary value in our community, and Georgia's education system is a key issue for Tejal and her family. "I was lucky that my parents were able to move to this school district, but many parents have to either pay for private school or take their chances." When I asked her if she could ask government to do something about it, she said there probably was something she could do, but she did not know exactly what, or how it would happen.

The Indian community is one of the fastest growing ethnic groups in Atlanta and the country. Immigration is at the top of the list for Pranav Desai, a recent UGA graduate, since it is an issue that "brings all sides of the Indian community together." Desai sees immigration as the one issue that can "mobilize the entire community," and it is something "everyone can agree on" and relate to because of their families in India. It is this issue that led him to vote.

Amar Duggal, a community activist and film producer, believes Indian-Americans' connection to India puts U.S. foreign policy regarding the subcontinent at the top of their list. He believes that Indians are still secure in the fact that India is their native country and that they will tend to vote for the Party that nurtures Indo-American relations.

Would it be more valuable to vote on issues important to the community or vote for a certain political party? Based on the answers provided by interviewees, it would depend on the level of participation of that individual. Sushila, who has never voted and does not see how the government can solve her problems, wants to clearly understand the issues and why her vote matters. Tejal, who wants to see a change happen through government but does not know where to start, wants to understand the political process and where her vote is going. Someone like Pranav, who thinks about mobilizing the community on an issue, probably considers talking to both political parties to see which one will come closest to meeting our needs. Whether the Democratic or Republican party favors Indian-Americans might depend on the issues we are discussing, as Amar suggests.

When it comes to issues, the responses from our survey participants demonstrated a consistency across religion, caste, and native Indian language. There is value in knowing that we have some issues that are common to us. The idea behind thinking as Indian-Americans rather than Maharashtrian-Americans or Punjabi-Americans is that we tend to think more politically when we unite as one community. When we are divided, we tend to think more about the culture and heritage we come from.

Based on 200 telephone interviews conducted for a master's thesis in 2001, if the participant identified themselves as "an Indian" instead of "Gujarati, Bengali, Tamil, Hindu, Muslim" or other categories, they were more likely to vote in U.S. elections, donate money to campaigns, and keep up with political issues. This finding was true regardless of age or generation.

Who cares about the Indian-American vote?

Is there such thing as an Indian-American voting block? Should we educate our community on the basis of issues or should we step back and first begin to develop a culture of civic engagement? There are almost a hundred community associations in Georgia that have various cultural and religious affiliations. However, there are a few organizations in Georgia and in the United States whose primary purpose is to mobilize Indian and South Asian Americans for civic and political engagement. The activities of these organizations range from general awareness to engaging leaders in federal government on Indian-American issues.

The South Asian American Leaders of Tomorrow (SAALT) has a few programs that address both civic and political needs of our community. They sponsor the National Gandhi Day of Service (NGDOS), which is on October 2nd.���For the past six years they have conducted NGDOS to encourage the spirit of community service based on the principles of Gandhi. SAALT also works to develop awareness on issues such as hate crimes.

SAALT is affiliated with SAAVY, which is the youth wing that works to sponsor 15 students to conduct voter registration in their communities and campuses to meet their goal of 15,000 new registered voters. Supporting the work of SAAVY here in Atlanta, the Georgia Indian American Political Action Committee is mobilized for registering Indian American voters in Atlanta and Georgia. GIAPAC volunteers also work to promote general discussion about the needs of our community and provide interaction with political candidates who will debate on the issues facing our community. Along with voter registration, GIAPAC provides educational materials on Georgia State and local candidates and issues.

Doing similar education on a national level, the Indian American Center for Political Awareness (IACPA) also develops fact sheets and other information to help educate the community. IACPA works to create awareness and give young India Americans opportunities to learn about the political process. They have a competitive internship program every year that places Indian American youth in Congressional offices in Washington D.C.���IACPA also conducts studies and polls to understand the Indian American experience and the issues important to the community.

Going a step further into actively participating in electoral politics, the Indian American Leadership Initiative (IALI) trains Indian American to become candidates or to work on political campaigns. Their belief is that bringing Indian-Americans to the political table helps make the representative diversity that allows better decision-making in government. IALI is partially responsible for the successful elections of Swati Dandekar, Iowa House of Representatives, and Kamala Harris, San Francisco District Attorney. The IALI-Atlanta Network, supported by volunteers of GIAPAC, recently conducted an Atlanta based training with local experts in campaign research, fundraising, and canvassing.

Finally, the US Indian Political Action Committee (USINPAC) is a bipartisan group that educates Federal Government leaders on Indian American issues of concern. They develop and present issue papers on issues such as Small Business interests, Immigration, and Malpractice insurance. They also give the Indian-American community access to up-to-date vital information about the laws that are being developed in Congress and give them the opportunity to respond to this process.

From immigrants to citizens

For all our collective success that has even earned us the moniker of "model minority", it is clear that we can enjoy the most valuable of our rights and privileges in this country only to the degree that we continue to engage in its civic and political enterprise. While such a transition is yet to pick up steam, the direction is certainly healthy, as with passing years, we continue to have more of 2nd generation Indian-Americans than the first-generation.

"I am as Indian as they come," says Chitra Ranjan who came to this country in the early eighties when she was 28. "In my first fifteen years in this country, I had not felt at home enough to consider taking interest in local or national politics, let alone in voting. But raising two children here can do wonders for slowly instilling patriotism and caring for the country which will claim our progeny," she says. Now Chitra not only votes but also volunteers her time with an area community clinic and writes letters frequently to her local officials.

Chitra seems to be amongst a growing number of Indian-American for whom PTA and Town Hall meetings are as much a part of their life as is Bollywood and conversations of the dramatic upset of BJP in India's massive elections. It seems that the face of the Indian-American voter is transforming right before our eyes �V from a disengaged immigrant to an involved citizen.

Political Resource Guide For the Community

National

?� http://www.vote-smart.org and http://congress.org/congressorg/home/

These website have the voting history and evaluations of your national representatives and appointees.

?� http://capwiz.com/usatoday/home/ and http://capwiz.com/usatoday/issuesaction/

USA Today gives Presidential candidates' positions on issues; state/local official positions; and action alerts and a tool to email your representatives.

?� http://www.opensecrets.org/politicians/

The website for the Center for Responsive Politics tracks the money donated in politics and its effect on elections and public policy.

?� http://speakout.com/activism/tips/

Tips and tools to become active on an issue you believe in.

Georgia

?� http://www.sos.state.ga.us

The Georgia Secretary of State website has a downloadable voter registration form and general voter information.

?� http://www.giapac-mobile.org

The GIAPAC-Mobile website gives you information about your local candidates, useful links for local, state, and national issues, details about political debates, and opportunities to help register and empower Indian American voters in Georgia.

?� http://groups.yahoo.com/GIAPAC

The GIAPAC Yahoo-Group is an informal, non-partisan political discussion group started in 2001 by a network of politically active Indian Americans in Georgia.

?� http://www.legis.state.ga.us/legis/2003_04/

Georgia Legislative Assembly lists all current and past bills debated in the Georgia Assembly.

?� http://www.georgiaparty.com and http://www.gagop.org

The Georgia Democratic and Republican Party websites.

?� http://www.icanatlanta.org/about.htm

Great on-line newsletter with political opinion articles and mainstream political activism activities around Atlanta.

?� http://www.gppf.org/

Georgia's only public policy think tank with policy documents on issues important to the people of Georgia.

Other Indian and South Asian American Political Organizations described in this Cover Story.

?� http://www.iacfpa.org Indian American Center for Political Awareness

?� http://www.saavy.org South Asian American Voting Youth

?� http://www.saalt.org South Asian American Leadership and Training

?� http://www.ialipac.org Indian American Leadership Initiative

?� http://www.usinpac.com US Indian Political Action Committee


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