Connie Liu and her colleague examining the ballot machine in her polling station, a senior building located south of Chinatown. Liu is the election coordinator of this polling site, she had been an election judge since 2012. Credit: Linghua Qi

This story was originally published by City Bureau on December 2, 2020.

Shining Li remembers the exact moment she decided to be an election judge. It was during a phone call with her mother.

“My mom was saying like, ‘Oh, it doesn’t matter,’ like, politics doesn’t matter,” Li said. “I was so frustrated . . . that I immediately applied to be the election judge.”

Coming off the most contentious presidential election in recent memory, election officials said the overall number of Chinese-speaking poll workers in Chicago has grown 15 percent compared to the primary in March, which includes a 10 percent increase in the number of judges younger than 34. While their official duties are to provide language assistance to voters, these Chinese Americans said they see working on Election Day as an extension of their commitment to American democratic ideals and in some cases, part of their political awakening to anti-racist work.

There were 150 Chinese-speaking poll workers in this November’s election, said Chinese outreach director Jane Lau, who has worked at the Board of Election Commissioners for 15 years. She’s worked with churches, libraries, high schools, and other organizations—over time, that outreach had allowed her to virtually recruit more people in this unconventional election year. Lau added she was encouraged to see that 25 percent of workers were high school or college students.

“They get experience and then they can share with their friends,” said Lau. “No matter the participation on Election Day, or participation in the electoral process in general, the community engagement is getting stronger.”

This increase in Chinese-speaking poll workers reflects a few trends nationwide. Asian Americans are the fastest-growing racial or ethnic group in the U.S. electorate, and one survey indicated higher-than-usual enthusiasm to vote in this year’s presidential election among Asian Americans. A recent New Yorker article described Asian Americans as the “last undecided voters.” With President Trump blaming China for the coronavirus pandemic, there’s been a spike in racist attacks against the Asian population, which was a wake-up call to many Chinese Americans.

Li is one of them. She immigrated to the U.S. with her parents from China around Thanksgiving in 1994, when she was only four years old. Growing up in Ohio, where Asians only account for 3 percent of the total population, Li felt there was always a mist over her identity.

“[Before] I was 22, 23 . . . I did not see myself as a racialized person,” she said. “It was almost like I thought I was white.”

Connie Liu registers a voter on a touch screen pad. As an election coordinator, part of her responsibility is to assist voters in getting information into the voting system, especially those senior citizens who can’t speak fluent English.
Connie Liu registers a voter on a touch screen pad. As an election coordinator, part of her responsibility is to assist voters in getting information into the voting system, especially those senior citizens who can’t speak fluent English.Credit: Linghua Qi

It was in college that Li began the journey of finding out who she is as a Chinese American and becoming actively involved in the anti-racism movement. That change was reinforced after the 2016 election and throughout the pandemic when discrimination against Asians was magnified. Something Li used to feel was distant became personal, she said.

Same as Li, Elizabeth Rice signed up after learning in the summer about the need for more young poll workers. Racial injustice, according to Rice, is an important value of the work she does. The 31-year-old received a master’s degree in food, culture, and identity. Her mother is Taiwanese and her father is white.

“It is my job to use my white privilege to make sure that [racism against Asian Americans] doesn’t happen, and to work against those inequities,” she said.

Rice said she and her brother started to bring more progressive ideas into their family to initiate conversations around politics and civic participation. It started with minor steps.

“We make sure that all four of us are voting in the midterm [election],” she said. “And we’re making sure that we pay attention to what’s [further] down on the ballot as well as the judges.”

Li and Rice also represent the shifting political attitudes of Asian Americans. A recent analysis by The Conversation showed how Asian Americans used to be a Republican voting bloc, but now are more likely to support Democratic candidates—regardless of voters’ country of origin, gender, and age. The 2020 Asian American Voter Survey shows that they support a range of progressive policies. In that survey, a majority of Asian Americans said they agree that “the government should do more to give Blacks equal rights with whites.”

But progressive politics certainly isn’t the only reason that Chinese-speaking poll workers showed up on Election Day. Connie Liu has been an election judge since 2012. What started as a one-time experience has become a long-term commitment. This year, she was the election coordinator at her polling station, a senior building south of Chinatown in Armour Square. After eight years, she still gets nervous sometimes—like when the ballot scanner went down after a paper jam this November.

“Every year at the end of the day, they say, we’re gonna see you at the next election,” Liu said. “And I just can’t say no.”

Liu and her brother came to the U.S. from China 30 years ago. They went through high school and college in Chicago, and settled down here eventually. Freedom of speech, Liu said, was one of the factors that drew her here. To her, democracy is a family affair.

“Most of the Chinese [immigrants], they want their kids to obey,” said Liu, who also encouraged her son and daughter to become election judges. “I feel OK every time when [my children] do anything meaningful. It doesn’t have to be the election.”

For Feihong Hsu, who first signed up in 2015, participating in the election was a practical choice—he wanted to practice his Mandarin—before it became something bigger. The now 42-year-old moved with his mother from China to reunite with his father in the U.S. in the late 1980s. Though both his parents have been voting since they moved here, Hsu never really witnessed any election when he was a child.

“Growing up with parents who voted, but who never demonstrated it to me, I didn’t pass my first vote until I was in my 30s,” said Hsu. One of the requirements to become a judge is to be registered to vote in Cook County (high school and college students are exempt from that requirement), so he early-voted in that election—the first time he exercised his right as a citizen. “It was kind of a big change in political awareness, I guess,” he said.

The conversation inside his family started to change, too. Hsu found himself constantly clarifying misinformation that his parents read on WeChat, a messaging platform where a large amount of unverified and poorly sourced news is spread. Hsu described the news feed on WeChat as an even worse version of Facebook.

Similarly, HoiChun Chan, who arrived in the U.S. with his parents 22 years ago, was never interested in politics and civic participation until he signed up to be a translation judge and voted for the first time.

Working at trade conventions, Chan took the position as an election judge just for the extra pay. Now he’s proud to do the work and even encourages his ESL (English as a Second Language) students to go out and vote.

“I’m a little bit proud of myself, that I’m kind of like, serving my country,” he said. “I also get to know a little bit more about the different candidates in the election.”

Chan hopes more young people will get involved in the democratic process, though he recognizes the 14-hour work shift for poll workers may scare people off. He suggested having a shift system so that judges don’t need to work such long hours.

But these poll workers recognize that elections are just one way to get involved—and family conversations are a good place to start. Hsu mentioned the new Disney movie Mulan and how it misrepresented Chinese culture, as well as how many Asian Americans tend to think racism is not directed toward them.

“If they were to be a little bit more politically aware and culturally aware,” he said, “they would understand that actually, there’s still lots of racism and it is directed at us as well, but it’s not as obvious.”   v

This story was produced by City Bureau, a civic journalism lab based in Chicago.